195. "Fixing the Schools Is Not Enough" New York Times, (December 17, 1989).


Plans to reform our schools tend to overlook the fact that about half of our youngsters grow up in families that are not viable from an educational viewpoint. Frequent divorces, a bewildering rotation of boyfriends and parents who come home from work exhausted both physically and mentally, have left many homes with a tremendous parenting deficit. Instead of providing a stable home environment and the kind of close, loving supervision good character formation requires, many child care facilities, grannies, and baby sitters simply insure that children will stay out of harm’s way.

As a result, personality traits essential for the acquisition of specific skills like math, English and various vocational skills are often lacking. Children come to school without self-discipline and they cannot defer gratification. Nor can they concentrate or mobilize themselves to the tasks at hand.

Many studies find students deficient in math or English skills. This does not concern such advanced matters as whether students can craft a powerful essay or analyze a calculus problem. At issue is the ability to do arithmetic and write clear memos. Close examination of what is required points in one direction: the elementary knowledge involved can be taught quickly because it entails rather simple rules. The rest is self-discipline and adhering to the rules without jumping to conclusions.

Character formation has traditionally been viewed as a family matter, while the various commissions studying our nation’s educational needs see schools as their purview. Also, cognitive deficiencies in areas like reading comprehension are more readily measured and less controversial than character defects, like the inability to delay gratification or concentrate on tasks. Mainstream psychology also has been highly cognitive in its outlook. Since the 1960's, it has tended to deal with skills rather than personalities. Still, studies lend support to the thesis that one needs to prepare the vessel before it can be loaded with skills and specific knowledge.

One of the best bodies of data regarding character formation was collected by James Coleman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago. The data show that children who study well also have well-developed characters. The youngsters doing well in high-performance schools have two main attributes: they do quite a bit of homework and they relate positively to their schools. Homework is the giveaway cue; those who can do a great deal of it, largely unsupervised, have acquired self-discipline. And, students need to respect their teacher and see their assignments as meaningful.

Several other studies reach similar conclusions. But the strongest evidence is found in the success of all-encompassing programs like the Conservation Corps, and some of the drug treatment programs. These programs take youngsters that often are disoriented, lacking in motivation and skills and develop their psychic stamina and their ability to mobilize and make commitments. Then the acquisition of specific skills becomes relatively easy.

Beyond being a prerequisite for good study habits, self-discipline is essential for making an employee show up for work regularly, be responsible for the quality of his or her production and take initiative. It is the basis of the work ethic.

How may one enhance the much neglected development of a child’s character? It is important to start early. Companies would be serving their long-term interests by offering their employees (mothers and fathers) more leave in the first two years of the child’s life. Parents ought to be advised that a premature emphasis on cognitive achievement and neglect of human development is self-defeating. One presupposes the other.

Recognizing that such a transformation in child care policy is unlikely, and that many parents probably will continue to spend relatively little time in developing their child’s character, the schools must step in. Schools ought to start earlier, say at age 4, and be open longer during the day and into the summer to make up for some of the lost parenting.

Resources must be shifted from the top-heavy end of the education structure to early education. Currently we often prepare youngsters poorly in primary schools, mistrain tem in high school, and then graduate them with poor working habits. But it is much more effective, from an economic viewpoint and a human one, to help young people learn things right the first time around.

If business leaders seek and active role in educational reform, they should concentrate on two related fronts: encourage character-formation before skill acquisition, and stress investment in the early years versus later ones.

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052
202.994.6118
comnet@gwu.edu