(From the Discovering the Real Me Teacher's Manual)
A museum exhibit in London displays piles of salt, potassium, carbon, etc., alongside a container of water. Underneath, there is a caption that reads, “THIS IS A HUMAN BEING.” Yes, materially speaking, these are the components of a human being. Yet most people would argue that there is something more to being human.
The human mind aspires to truth, beauty, goodness, virtue, and love. Finding or realizing these things gives us a deep sense of fulfillment as well as happiness and joy. Without these things, life is ashen indeed.
At the same time, we have material desires and needs coming from our physical selves—the part of us that is indeed salt, potassium, carbon, water, etcetera. We like to eat tasty food. We want to be physically healthy. We seek shelter to protect us from the elements and provide us with a comfortable place to live. We value money and the things that it can buy. We seek a mate. Fulfilling these physically based desires brings us physical happiness.
Throughout human history, people have pursued both the physical and spiritual aspects of understanding. Through science, we have come to understand the nature of our physical universe more and more, leading to technological advances that have enhanced the quality of our material life. Religion and philosophy have given us a deeper understanding of the internal or spiritual aspect of life, addressing fundamental questions such as the meaning of life, the way of goodness, the existence, and nature of God, human relationships, and so on. Science on the one hand, and religion and philosophy on the other, have both been involved in the pursuit of human understanding.
In the 20th century, education throughout the world came to take on more of a scientific and technical character. In the process, the more traditional concept of education, which stressed the development of a person’s character in preparation for life, became more and more marginalized. Daniel Goleman, researcher and author of the groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence, wrote,
“Our schools and our culture fixate on academic abilities, ignoring emotional intelligence, a set of traits—some might call it character—that also matters immensely for our personal destiny.”
Our tendency has been to focus on developing knowledge, skills, and creative talents while neglecting the more fundamental dimensions of educating people to become good. The result of this overemphasis has been the education of people with high levels of professional abilities that do not possess moral standards commensurate with their influence and responsibility. Thus, we have computer specialists using their knowledge to create viruses whose sole purpose is to destroy the workings of thousands of computers, or creative artists who use their talents to propagate sexual exploitation and violence.
The challenge for education in the 21st century is to correct the current imbalance. To neglect doing so is actually dangerous. As our power to control and manipulate our physical universe grows, the need to channel that power through morality grows too.
Historian Arnold Toynbee put it like this: “The greater our material power, the greater our need for spiritual insight and virtue to use our power for good and not for evil…We have never been adequate spiritually for handling our material power; and today the morality gap is…greater than it has ever been in any previous age.”
It is not a far stretch to realize that technical knowledge without the guidance of morality is dangerous. Knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons in the hands of immoral killers would be a disaster for humanity. Medical expertise in the hands of torturers refines their methods to a horrific degree.
One headmaster, having experienced the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War, summed up this point in a letter he wrote to his new teachers each year:
"My eyes saw what no man should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers, children poisoned by learned physicians, infants killed by trained nurses, women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. ... My request is: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human."
Whether the knowledge and skills imparted by conventional education are used for the benefit or to the detriment of society depends primarily on the heart and conscience of the educated person. Therefore, character education is not only desirable; it is absolutely necessary.
The deepest motivation for moral striving arises from the heart—in particular; the heart is the source of the fundamental impulse for relatedness. It is what motivates a person to yearn for the joy of loving and being loved, the satisfaction of valuing and being valued. Love and relatedness describe a human need no less strong than the need for food or shelter. Indeed, people often are willing to give up both of these for the sake of love.
Love in its true sense is inherently moral. It requires altruistic action: giving, serving, and sacrificing one’s self for the sake of one’s beloved. Love is also inherently ethical, because it can be realized only in a relationship with another human being.
The beginning point of education lies with the cultivation of the child’s heart by providing experiences of love. This enhances the child’s feeling of security and worth, making a solid foundation for subsequent growth and development. Because the heart is the core of human character, the ability to give and receive love is the ultimate manifestation of true maturity, over and above academic knowledge.
Along with heart, the development of a strong conscience is also an important aspect of building good character. Whereas the heart is the source of love, we may view the conscience as an internal compass guiding one’s love in the direction of goodness.
Parents, teachers, and other mentors serve as important guides and role models for the development of a child’s conscience. The school can provide a supportive atmosphere by creating a moral community in which students, teachers, and school administrators are working together in harmony and with mutual respect. The school would benefit also from instilling in each student a sense of shared responsibility for creating a moral culture.
Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995).
Arnold Toynbee, Civilization on Trial (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948).
Haim Ginott, Between Teacher and Child (New York: Avon, 1976).
Kathy Winings. Building Character through Service Learning (Chapel Hill, NC: Character Development Publishing, 2002).
David Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984).