Character development doesn’t need wads of cash

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Commentary by Arthur Ogden

I read recently in the Mobile Register that the Baldwin County School System has received a $2 million grant for the development of character in their schools.

It struck me that this grant smacks of election year pandering to soothe the fears of voting parents who believe that their children are not exhibiting behavior which is honorable.

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Regardless of the motives, it still seems to be another “problem” which some liberal politicians believe will be solved by throwing more money at it.

Still, whatever happened to character being practiced rather than being taught?

And whatever happened to the notion that teachers, principals, professors, and deans exhibited character rather than analyzing and lecturing on it?

I can remember my seventh grade English class including a six-week unit on, believe it or not, etiquette.

We learned how to introduce people, how to answer a telephone call, as well as placing one, and I remember to this day that the person responsible for making the call is also responsible for closing the call.

In the same unit we learned proper dinner table discussion topics.

That unit was a basis for our “character” education.

The key was that is reflected what we practiced at home, and was reinforced in every other class we had.

In short, the school was an extension of the home, not the home an extension of the school.

How those roles have been reversed over the past four decades is fodder for another column, but for now it is obvious that character education became a casualty in this process.

For the moment, however, it would appear that the excitement in Baldwin County is misplaced.

If I were still living there, I would seriously question the utility of spending that kind of money on that kind of “education” when so many other academic needs are pressing, like the fact that our youngsters are not reading at the same comparative levels their parents did years ago.

Part of the problem rests with parents, yes, but the greater problem rests with society as a whole.

Nationwide, we are more rude to each other, more intolerant, more impatient, and less understanding.

The only respite in this declension of civility came for a brief period after we were attacked on September 11 – but even now the Democrats act as if that tragic event is ancient history.

Hence, someone somewhere with some $2 million believes that this money will solve the problem.

Character is the exhibition of honor, integrity, civility, moral strength, and personal accountability.

It is consistent and enduring.

Its essence should be imbued in every class, every discipline, every lecture, and every activity associated with some educational enterprise as an on-going process.

Character should be instilled in our children at the earliest possible learning circumstance in the home.

It must be defined in our churches.

And it must be practiced and reinforced in our schools, since they are the crucibles in which we experiment with new concepts and ideas.

As teachers whose livelihoods depend on character, coaches inherently know that scholastic athletic activity is a very real learning laboratory for the development of character.

They know first-hand that it is character that yields success, that honor and accountability are the cornerstones of victory, and that they do not need $2 million to teach their athletes what character entails.

Character is that quality of the person which defines who each of us is.

The Oxford American Dictionary offers this definition of character: “All those qualities that make a person, group, or thing what he or it is and different from others; a person’s moral nature.”

The comprehensive scope of this definition intimates that it cannot be “taught” with a grant and then directed in a vacuum apart from applications in the real world.

It is not some abstract concept which exists by itself.

Rather, it is interwoven as part of the entire tapestry of one’s being.

It begins with distinguishing what actions and behaviors are right from those which are wrong, without all of the self-serving hair splitting of a previous president.

It does not end until we cease to.

But for certain, if character ceases first, then our sense of person soon follows.

Attempts to teach character through analysis, rather than through direct, continuous application miss the point.

It must be the foundation of personal accountability in every venture we engage from the outset of our social experience.

And it needs to be the centerpiece of every curriculum to which we expose our children, but a $2 million grant will not insure its implementation and especially not its success.

Only daily, applied practice will.

Dr. Arthur Ogden is campus director of the Demopolis branch of Alabama Southern Community College.