BY ETIENNE R. LEGRAND
During a recent visit to my alma mater, Boston University, I was once again moved by the memorial erected on campus to the school’s most famous alumnus, Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a sculpture of doves in flight over the center of campus — and it always makes me think of education as the wind beneath our wings.
In an essay King wrote for the Maroon Tiger in 1947 titled, “The Purpose of Education” he said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically …. intelligence plus character — that is the goal of education.” King’s inclusion of character as a dimension of the educational process is consistent with his strong belief that one-day African-American children would be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. I think he’d be disappointed that our focus on the development of children’s character as a component of the attainment of education has waned over time.
Report cards, for instance, no longer report on conduct — which let you know how much trouble you’d been causing in school. Conduct communicated volumes about the relationship between character and getting a good education: self-control, respect, citizenship, and fairness, among others. Developing character at school and at home made enhanced learning and assured that children would have a reasonable chance of leading productive and meaningful lives.
There is some good news that bodes well for a refocusing on character development in concert with one’s learning to think intensively and critically. Recent research by Angela Duckworth finds that exceptional character strengths, like persistence, resolve, and persuasion may be indispensible to making it to graduation day. For most of us, character is developed through the challenges and sometime failures we experience. In recasting character as a companion to educational attainment today we reacquire a not so new tool in our arsenal that has the potential to help a significant number of low-performing children in our nation’s public schools improve the odds of their success since many of these children face significant challenges every day.
We have an opportunity to take what are perceived largely as reasons to expect academic failure – poverty, absent fathers, undereducated parents – and to deliberately focus children in these circumstances on transforming the lessons of these