Why character matters, part 2

When I was in high school, there was a day when my English teacher was absent and had left a test for us to do under the supervision of the substitute teacher. Only, for whatever reason the sub didn’t show, and a couple kids found the test and started reading out the questions.

The next day our teacher was almost in tears when she spoke to us about the incident–about what had happened, about how she was disappointed in not just the active participants but also in those of us, like myself, who had just watched the scene unfold, and not tried to speak up. But the thing that really stuck with me from this talk was when she described an incident from her own youth, when she was working at a movie theater and her coworkers had persuaded her to go along with a scheme to collect and resell tickets, pocketing the profits. And she admitted to having gone along with them initially, until she told her friend about the plan, who immediately ripped the tickets in two and told her it was dishonest.

The point she made was that people can change. We can reflect on our actions and decide to act differently next time. And somehow, even though I grew up in a home with parents who are very honest and ethical people, this was not something that had ever occurred to me. I was usually considered a “good” kid, because I went along with what adults wanted and behaved in class–but it was coming from a place of passivity and self-interest. It was easier, and I usually got what I wanted. It was most certainly not coming from character, the kind that would stand up to pressure.

I’m glad my English teacher took advantage of the episode to make it a teachable moment. But thinking back, there weren’t many other times when we discussed right and wrong during school. In medical school, on the other hand, we spent quite a bit of time on medical ethics, and while some of the scenarios were quite abstract and unlikely to happen to us, we were given some concrete guidance on things that might: what to do if a colleague is impaired, for example. And even for the more abstract cases, we were taught to think them through using the specific principles that form the basics of medical ethics–respect patients’ autonomy, do no harm, do good.

What would it look like to have this type of instruction explicitly build into K-12 education? It might mean reading and discussing stories from Aesop’s Fables or something similar. (William Bennett tried to collect a bunch of these stories in one place in The Book of Virtues.) Or discussing stories from the news. Reading literature brings up a lot of topics for discussion. But regardless, if the goal of school is to prepare kids for adulthood, it means giving them the tools to handle the situations they find themselves thrown into–and character is a tool they can always have.

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