A friend of mine was bicycling through a quiet neighborhood one day last fall when, like a good citizen, she slowed to a halt at a stop sign. When my friend started pedaling again, a teenage girl who, flanked by a group of friends, was standing in the street near the corner as if she were going to cross, suddenly slugged my friend in the arm, knocking her off her bike and onto the ground.
As the gaggle of teens behind her broke out laughing, the girl looked impassively at my friend, who staggered to her feet, and said, unprompted, "Just because." After making a few insensitive comments, the youngsters headed away as my friend -- shaken, bruised, and bloodied by her impact on the pavement -- walked her bike along her intended route until she had recovered sufficiently to mount it and continue along her way.
The bruise on her arm where the girl had struck her remained visible for a couple of weeks. For just as long, she could barely use the arm she had landed on, and months later, it still ached at the point of impact. But the most acute -- and most chronic -- damage was to her soul. The thought that a group of adolescents could so callously inflict senseless pain and display such insensitivity toward another human being was a heavier blow to her than the physical impact.
This incident is minor on the continuum of inhumane acts, but its very banality is disturbing. It got me to thinking about some of the tenets The George Lucas Educational Foundation stands for: social and emotional learning, emotional intelligence, character education. It's easy to be cynical, to decide that it doesn't matter how many classroom meetings and cooperative-learning activities and affirmations and validations children experience at school if a family -- a community, a world -- can produce a child who commits an act like that, so petty yet so reprehensible.
But we, as educators, cannot surrender; a primary function of our profession is to help children, regardless of the mitigating forces in society, attain a full measure of humanity. Edutopia.org articles such as "How To: Teach Character in the Classroom" and "'We're Here to Raise Kids': Character Development Is Key" attest to the drive we have to accomplish this formidable task. (See our Emotional Intelligence page for more features on the topic.)
What do you think about this issue? Does character education in schools have a significant effect on children's emotional growth? Is it worth the effort, considering how many contradictory stimuli, including influential accounts and footage of celebrity belligerence and other antisocial behavior, exist in the world? Is it sensible to believe that the girl who said "Just because" might have pulled her punch -- or might never have considered striking my friend in the first place -- if she'd learned better behavior in school, regardless of external influences? I'd be interested to read your thoughts.