When President Obama visited Syracuse last month, touting Higher Education for everyone, I felt like rolling out a banner, "Character Ed. before Higher Ed."
While, no doubt, higher education has always been a key factor both in individual social and economic mobility, in creating a viable workforce, and nurturing future leaders, it is not the only ingredient. Individuals and societies, even corporate societies and governments, need to run as much on values and ethics -- the "wisdom" behind the knowledge -- as they do on the knowledge itself. And I would argue that given the current state of affairs, despite our great expanse of knowledge, we are definitely short on wisdom.
Secondly, though higher education is desirable, getting there is half the fun. Even if we could afford universal education, getting all children ready is another story. I feel all children have a special gift. It is our job as adults to help them find it and then nurture it. But I also feel that some children's gifts lie in a trade, an art, or some form of entrepreneurship that may not take them on a traditional higher education route. We should not make them feel inferior. As a matter of fact, in the new world order, their skills may be more valuable than those of us who did follow the traditional path up the ladder.
What is needed at all levels is to teach and encourage our children (and adults) to think and think critically. To stimulate their imaginations, inspire discussion, ask their opinions and guide them in discussions. The easiest way to do this is through stories. Stories are our cultural DNA -- they have bound civilizations together -- and they ground our character development, providing an arc from childhood to adulthood.
I like to say, the stories we choose to tell and how we choose to tell them, determines the course of civilization. And right now the stories we tell our children -- directly or indirectly -- are filled with conflict and values based on dollars alone. Through these stories we have bred a generation whose focus is mainly on the self not on our society. It's as if compassion has been bred out. While schools are pushing service learning, the rest of the world around is dominated by conflict and fear of the unknown born out of ignorance. Ignorance of omission - meaning no one has bothered to educate us about a particular subject, or ignorance born out of propaganda, intentionally skewed messages to achieve a desired political or economic result. And frankly the hatred and fear of the "other," that so dominates our culture is one of the primary causes of bullying and much worse. We pass laws to outlaw bullying in school, but perpetuate it in our culture. While we try to teach our children peace and conflict resolution, the news is dominated by anything but.
I loved learning, was a good student, and had the privilege (and I mean privilege) of a great education. But it was what I learned after my formal education that made me the person I am today.
Education should and must be focused on nurturing good global citizens. This is a matter of values along with knowledge. And given key studies which show that character education or social emotional education actually creates a learning environment where academics improve -- scores go up -- why not provide equal focus and at least some money to fund character education.
In the quest to create a strong foundation, we are cramming all students into square holes, instead of providing a more well-rounded hole which can support everyone. It even creates a better environment for teachers. And we know that happy teachers make happy students.
That is not to say we have to lower our expectations. We should raise them. Studies have shown equally that by not demanding performance or not expecting the best, we are basically communicating to the child -- "you're not good enough to succeed" -- and even worse -- we show we really don't care.
The Common Core's web page proudly announces -- "Preparing America's Students for College and Career."
How about preparing them for life in the process! In truth, character education is higher education.