BATH – Paul Tough, the author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” recently spoke at the University of Southern Maine.
He challenges the way America is choosing to prepare youth for life, making a compelling case. The remarkable public response to this educational book says Americans in general may be seriously considering the idea.
British historian Arthur Toynbee did a seminal 10-volume study of history itself, concluding we and the civilizations we build thrive in adversity and flounder in prosperity.
Growing up during the adverse years of depression and World War II, I can well remember the excitement, national “can-do” spirit and camaraderie on V-J Day. Parents worked hard, knowing they were creating a better life for their children.
Sadly, that America would not understand today’s America.
It would be awed by its incredible advances in medicine, science, travel and communications, and its many billionaires (not just millionaires), but confused by our somewhat pessimistic mood and our lack of spirit and camaraderie that can border on disrespect, even hostility, as reflected by our political parties.
That America would be stunned that children-doing-better-than-their-parents was reversing itself.
I think those of us who have lived through both eras understand what has happened. Pre-war values — “Mom and apple pie” — and character gave us a powerful base, not just to deal with adversity, but with life itself.
But after the war, something changed. The new focus was not on dealing with life, but on getting ahead in life. Education became the key to success.
We unwittingly allowed school with its emphasis on achievement to push family and character into the background.
First, there was a real cost to the full and proper growth of students. Achievement values superiority, which favors any advantage, including those involving background and wealth.
This produced a difficult education system for a nation seeking equality, as witnessed by the black-white achievement gap in our schools and the widening gap between poverty and wealth.
Students responded to the emphasis on what they can do over who they are with cliques and gangs and violence within school walls. So today we have a national epidemic of bullying, sometimes leading to tragic suicides or even to Columbine-like school shootings.
Studies now indicate as many as 90 percent to 95 percent of our high school students cheat in some form and more than 30 percent admit to stealing.
Recently, 125 students were involved in a cheating episode at Harvard. It should bother us that students disregard their conscience and other aspects of character.
Second, there is a broader cost as students carry these dog-eat-dog attitudes into adult life. Greed is the problem in our recent financial meltdown.
The Madoff and Enron swindles were the tip of an iceberg, holding a Wall Street view that clients are puppets to be manipulated for personal gain.
Our schools teach competition, not concern.
Consider how many of our sports heroes cheated to win, like Lance Armstrong. Or that the football “Saints” had a money pool to award those who injured opponents. Or that Penn State officials chose not to protect defenseless kids.
How many political figures had to resign because some character flaw was exposed? How many religious leaders? What is the character of many of our sports and entertainment celebrities?
We’ve become the most litigious society in the world. Do we tend to blame others for our problems? Do words like obesity, road rage and narcissism apply to us?
The Centers for Disease Control report that “roughly half of Americans will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives.”
The root of all these problems is an educational system that seeks to compete with other systems internationally by having its students compete against each other.
In this effort, it ignores developing the many good qualities in students that would make a difference to them, to their lives — and to America.
American education should rigorously seek to develop the unique potential and character of every child.
This positive experience would bond children, ultimately creating a more united America, giving young people confidence, motivation and courage to lead the country and the world.
This new emphasis on character would require families and schools to work closely together; in character development, parents are the primary teachers and the home the primary classroom.
Both families and schools would face challenges, but they would create a stronger and more united America.
Joseph Gauld of Bath is the founder of Hyde Schools.