9/27 Roundup: Doing Well, but Not So Good

Richard Weissbourd and Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education are, for obvious reasons, concerned about what we’re teaching our children.

“We are obsessed with our children doing well, not doing good.”

Weissbourd and Gardner make that observation in a recent article at The Washington Post. Their story, titled “The fundamental things we aren’t teaching our kids,” highlights the seismic shifts in educational priorities in recent decades. For centuries, Western education was just as concerned about developing character and compassion as it was academic achievement.

Those traits have been all but tossed aside in a culture of performance where getting ahead is the name of the game. The authors say it’s no wonder that basic decency and civility are hard to find in today’s society.

“The current narrow focus on success has not been the norm,” they write. “In fact, throughout most of our history, the primary charge for parents (and grandparents) was to raise good community members and responsible citizens. Similarly, until the last century, the chief mission of most schools and colleges in this country has not been promoting academic achievement but forming individuals who are respectful, responsible citizens. And certainly good character has been key in religious education.”

The article refers to a study in which children were asked if they agree with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I am a caring community member in class and school.” Kids were three times more likely to agree than disagree.

Gardner, known for his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, has conducted studies have found that students are willing to cut corners and cheat to become successful. They believe that ethical behavior is something to strive for after achieving success.

Weissbourd and Gardner think many educators focus more on “performance character” traits (perseverance, grit, resilience) than “ethical character” traits (care, honesty, fairness). They don’t suggest abandoning the former for the latter, but they do propose a return to literally old-school values, where character really does count.

That’s the whole point of Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, where Weissbourd is faculty director. The program is dedicated to helping “educators, parents, and communities raise children who are caring, responsible to their communities, and committed to justice.”

Making Caring Common (MCC) is working on several initiatives to that end, including programs with self-descriptive names like Caring Schools, Empathy Strategies, and Kind Schools Challenge. But perhaps the most exciting effort is focused on college admissions.

Turning the Tide is a national campaign encouraging high school students to focus on meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement. The program aims to groom students to be kind to others, to participate in community service, and engage with the public good.

Character education is nothing new, of course, but this campaign might really make a significant difference. If students know that a 4.0 GPA and being president of their national honor society isn’t enough to get them into an elite college or university, if they understand that compassion matters as much as their SAT or ACT scores, then students—and their parents—will take note.

To date, 175 colleges and universities—including all of the Ivy League schools—have endorsed the campaign.

Weissbourd and Gardner have some advice for parents: Rather than tell children that “the most important thing is that you do well in school and are happy,” they might say, “the most important thing is that you’re caring and fair.”

“None of this, of course, will be easily achieved,” they conclude. “But it is worth tremendous effort. The divided, contentious state of community in much of our country and throughout the world requires that we demand much of ourselves and young people. And the time may be right.”





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