Teach Character First, Then Content — SJ Mercury News

For success in schools, teach character first, then content

by Robert Freeman

This article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on March 3, 2008. Robert Freeman teaches economics and history at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, California.

Robert Freeman, history and economics teacher, Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, California
Robert Freeman, history and economics teacher, Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, California

Mark Twain once wrote, “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” He may just as well have been writing about education.

We’ve tried smaller class sizes, more testing, better teacher training, longer school years, charters, technology and, of course, that perennial elixir, more money. Nothing seems to work.

The reason is that all of these “fixes” assume that the student is a product, something to be built, tested and packaged for use. They overlook the two most critical things that matter in education: that character is more important than content; and that it is the student – much more than the teacher or school – who ultimately determines success.

Until our reform efforts reflect those two realities, they will only deliver more frustration and failure.

The idea that character is more important than knowledge is readily understood by most parents. It is character they are inculcating when they remind their child, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

A child with strong character will find the way to whatever knowledge he or she desires or needs. He will be much more able and willing to learn, no matter what the grade or subject.

The reverse is equally true: Knowledge without character is impotent or, worse, malevolent. Weak or conflicted character becomes its own worst enemy, both in school and in life.

What does this say about how we should reform our schools?

First, we need to cultivate high standards of character just as much as we do high standards of content. Honesty, discipline, compassion, patience, perseverance and self-respect will help the student excel in school as well as in life.

Academic content should be used as a vehicle for cultivating character. How many of us remember our trigonometry, our chemistry or our French verb conjugations? Virtually none of us.

What we remember is how to stay with a problem, how to meet deadlines, how to present our work with pride, how to ask for help if we need it and how to help others when they need it. With these skills, any discipline can be mastered. Without them, none can.

Second, teachers need to model the primacy of character over content. It is not what I say that speaks to the child, it is what I do. This is the same as in parenting, isn’t it?

If I am an engaged teacher, interested in each student’s welfare, curious about the world, passionate about my subject and embodying integrity and dignity in all of my acts, the children will see it. They will esteem it. It’s not so much what I teach that they learn, it is what I am.

Finally, we need to enlist the students as active participants in the development of their own characters. They’re not products on an assembly line, receiving bolted-on, prepackaged knowledge components, although too often our schools work as if that were the case.

Boy gives his "qualities" speech at the end of year ceremony, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, CA
Even the youngest students at LWS are supported in developing basic character strengths, such as the confidence and poise to speak to an audience of 200 fellow students and parents at the annual end-of-year “Qualities” ceremony. (Click to enlarge.)

Students need to understand that character is both the end and the means of a good education and that it is they who are most responsible for it. With that in hand, and with supportive teachers, content comes easily, no matter what the subject.

Focusing on character enables students to transcend the limitations of race, which is too often an excuse for under-achievement. Race is a bitter, fateful trap, for students can never change theirs. But they can build stronger character every day and, with it, become effective in any circumstance and in any society.

Information? Knowledge? Intellect? These, of course, are critical in today’s hyper-competitive world. No sane person would discount them. But they are actually the easiest things to teach.

It is the deeper elements of character that are harder to cultivate and, therefore, so much more valuable: How do you discern good information from bad? What knowledge is it you aspire to? How do you use intellect wisely?

It is these gifts that will stand the test of time, that will bear fruits of self-respect, confidence and ease with oneself in the world. These are the true ends and the true measures of education. It is in this direction that we need to focus our efforts for reform.