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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Academics and School Life: The Importance of Character

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

David Brooks is at it again. His March 5, 2012 column in the NY Times, "The Rediscovery of Character," give strong intellectual, moral, and practical support for schools' considering Social, Emotional, and Character Development (SECD) as essential for and integrated with academic competence and success. The subtext of Brooks' article is that people are still slow to believe in the importance of character, social and emotional skills, even though the evidence surrounds us constantly.

We have to convince ourselves and be prepared to articulately convince others that investing financially and with other resources in SECD is essential for educational success, as well as the health and well being of nations overall.

To strengthen his case, Brooks draws on the work of the late James Q. Wilson, whose article title Brooks took for his column. I like this quote from David Brooks in particular as something we need to share with colleagues, parents, and policy makers:

"When Wilson wrote about character and virtue, he didn't mean anything high flown or theocratic. It was just the basics, befitting a man who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1940s: Behave in a balanced way. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Cooperate. Be decent.

He did not believe that virtue was inculcated by prayer in schools. It was habituated by practicing good manners, by being dependable, punctual and responsible day by day."

I decided to take a look at Wilson's original article, written in 1985 and published in The Public Interest. I recommend you take a look at it, and how Wilson takes a comprehensive approach to showing the importance of character for a civilized society and successful child rearing and education. In fact, this quote is an excellent statement of how the two are completely interrelated:

"What is striking about the desirable school ethos is that it so obviously resembles what almost every developmental psychologist describes as the desirable family ethos. Parents who are warm and caring but who also use discipline in a fair and consistent manner are those parents who, other things being equal, are least likely to produce delinquent offspring. A decent family is one that instills a decent character in its children; a good school is one that takes up and continues in a constructive manner this development of character."

I would only add that a good school is also one that encourages students' social, emotional and character development irrespective of what parents might be doing or how they treat their children, and does so out of an ethical and educational imperative, without exception.




Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Life isn't so easy for kids. They must choose not only to stick up for each other in difficult circumstances, but decide what is right or wrong for themselves. How do I handle a bully? Do I snitch? Do I get revenge? Do I just submit to it? Kids need to choose if they are going to to live out the morality of their homes and churches. Do I let anyone know I disagree with bias and racism? What if I do, will I be in danger? Can I openly say I believe (don't believe) in God?
The school system can use literature and the other liberal arts to enhance a positive school culture; this could actually save lives.

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