198. "Education Begins at Home" Roll Call, (May 21, 1990).


A major employer reports that about half of its recent job applicants did not meet any of the corporation’s low-level qualifications, including “light typing.”

Even more worrisome, the pool of job applicants may not improve in the future.

The reason is that educational reformers ignore the need for psychological preparation - in particular, character-formation. These qualities are essential, however, both as a prerequisite for acquiring basic skills, and for employment - from attendance to the ability to adhere to instructions.

Pans to reform schools tend to overlook 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 girlfriends, 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 character formation requires, many child care facilities, grannies, and baby sitters mainly ensure that the child stays out of harm’s way.

As a result, personality traits essential for the acquisition of specific skills (math, English, and vocational) often remain underdeveloped. Children come to school lacking self-discipline; they cannot defer gratification or concentrate on the task at hand.

It is futile to pump these youngsters with more math, foreign languages, long hours of science or liberal arts.

Take typing. One can teach a person the mechanics in less than one hour (where to place the fingers, how to adjust the margins). The rest is simply a matter of patience, the ability to repeat the same drill often enough, long enough.

Many studies find students deficient in math or English skills. This does not concern such advance 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.

Again, close examination of what is required points to the same lack of character training. The elementary knowledge involved can be taught quickly. When you subtract A from B and get C, tally B and C to verify that they make A; a sentence ends with a period; and so on. The “rest” is a matter of self-discipline, the ability to adhere to there rules and not jump to conclusions or gush incoherently on paper.

There are several reasons that education commissions focus their attention elsewhere. Character-formation has traditionally been viewed as a family matter, and the commissions see it as falling outside their purview. Also, cognitive deficiencies (e.g. reading comprehension) are more readily measured and less controversial than character defects.

And mainstream psychology (which has fashions of its own), has been highly cognitive. Since the 1960s, 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 pieces of knowledge, let alone seek to further its own education.

One of the best bodies of Nationwide data 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 in “high performance” schools have two main attributes: They do quite a bit of homework and they relate positively to their schools. Homework is a giveaway cue - those who can do a great deal of it, largely unsupervised, have acquired self-discipline. Additionally, students need to respect their teacher and see their assignments as meaningful.

Otherwise they do not “internalize” self-discipline; they do not make it part of their own character.

Several other studies (“Fifteen Thousand Hours” especially) reach similar conclusions. However, the strongest evidence is found in the success of all encompassing programs such as Conservation Corps, and some of the drug treatment programs.

These take youngsters who are often disoriented, lacking in motivation and skills, and develop - first and foremost - their psychic stamina, the ability to mobilize and make commitments. Once these are achieved, acquisition of specific skills and employment become 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, take initiative, in short, for work ethics. There can be no competitive labor force without it. Indeed, it is exactly what both Japanese students and workers excel in.

How may one enhance the much neglected development of children’s character? It is important to start early. Parents ought to be advised that premature emphasis on cognitive achievements and neglect of human development is self-defeating. One presupposes the other.

Additionally, since many parents must work full time, and will continue to spend relatively little time 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. Longer hours, especially in the lower grades, and with more development activities mixed in throughout the day, could help make up for some of the lost parenting.

Finally, resources must be shifted from the top-heavy end of the educational structure to early education. Currently, we often prepare youngsters poorly in primary schools, mistrain them in high school, and then graduate them with poor working habits.

For all too many, we spend their first two years of college correcting the wrong done in the lower schools by teaching remedial English and catch-up math, and above all, trying to instill proper work habits.

It is much more effective, from an economic viewpoint and a human one, to help young people learn things right the first time around.

The federal role, though rather limited, could contribute in the following areas:

1. Provisions to increase the amount and quality of child care with maximum parental involvement. The best policy would encourage parents to form, direct, and staff child care cooperatives with concurrent changes in corporate policies allowing parents to devote time to the cooperatives.

Congress could use tax incentives to bolster corporate involvement, and 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.

If many parents could not arrange the time, at least one parent should be present every day at every child care center. This would encourage appropriate service from providers without requiring elaborate government inspection systems. Short of this, parents should be on the boards of all centers.

2. Since many students work in businesses during their last two years of high school, at entry-level jobs with little or no educational content, Congress should encourage businesses to set up programs that are more educationally meaningful.

Students could earn some school credits for their work as part of their compensation, and in exchange companies would spend some time on education.

For example, companies could allow students, under supervision, to participate in low-level managerial duties, rotate more among jobs, and otherwise gain meaningful work experience. The Department of Education should be encouraged to promote such arrangements.

3. Finally, Congress should hold hearings to illuminate the maldistribution of the total education budget, including federal state, local, and private funds. The hearings could be used to point attention to the need to shift funds increasingly towards the early years of child development.

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