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LETTER FROM AMERICA: How schools build good character

EducationWorld March 2024 | International News Magazine
Larry ArnnDr Larry Arnn, President, Hillsdale College, USA

Hillsdale College, where I am employed, sponsors over 100 schools across the United States. These are ‘classical’ schools — they look back to a ‘classic’ age for direction and inspiration.

One feature of classical schools is they aim to build ‘character’. It is a big word. It emanates from an ancient Greek word that means “to etch or engrave”. Developing character therefore requires repeated action.

Aristotle wrote one of the first books to address the subject of ‘ethics’, another big word. In some ways, it is a synonym of character. Ethics are an attribute of human beings committed to good action and good thinking in their ‘character’. One develops character through the process of etching or engraving. She must work on it, especially when young.

There are pitfalls on every side. A child may become lazy, unable to work intentionally, or hyperactive, unable to stop and think. A student may become a bully, dominating others, or reticent, unwilling to stand up for himself or contribute to discussion. Aristotle teaches us that against these vices, the place to be is in the middle. One should be active to the right degree, ambitious to the right degree, and ready to help others to the right degree. The process of growing up to build character is learning to navigate between extremes.

Choice is the process of deliberation we undertake to choose between options. It is at the moment of choosing that one makes a little etch or engraving on the soul. Hard choices are those in which good must be given up for the sake of better, or some difficulty or pain suffered to avoid worse. One may want to run away when confronted with danger. Sometimes flight is right. People with good character have courage, and they run away only when it is right. The voice that advises courage is innate in human beings. We are made to listen to this voice.

Our choices are our own, made internally in an interplay between our desires and thinking. We teachers help students best by the combination of what is famously called “precept and example”.

Precept requires explaining concepts like the ones cited to a young person. Only human beings can understand these things, and all of them can. When a young person hears them, he understands goal-setting. Once he understands, he becomes an active agent in pursuit of the goal.

Examples include a teacher behaving well, providing model good behaviour. It also includes correction of a student when he errs and praise when he does well. More powerfully, examples include the study of people in history and in literature who exhibit good character.

Good schools help students to build good character through precept and example. Both are vital. This requires schools to be stable in direction, truthful in instruction, and inspirational in message. Students of good schools respond naturally and with enthusiasm.

Also read: Lifetime Achievement in Education Leadership Award 2023-24: Dr. Larry Arnn

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