BATH — The purpose of K-12 education has radically changed since I graduated in 1945.

To us, pursuing the American dream included “doing our best, helping others and leaving the world better.”

Now education reflects a self-centered assembly line purpose: Good college = good job = more money = happiness.

This dramatic change in purpose is damaging student development. For example, one study, evaluating over 63,000 high school and college students’ responses to a mental health survey between 1938 and 2007, found: “Eighty-five percent of college students today fall above the average mental illness ‘score’ of students in the 1930s and 1940s. Students today report they feel significantly more isolated, misunderstood, and emotionally sensitive or unstable than in decades past.”

This change threatens America’s stability and security. Those earlier students fought and defeated two foes dominating Europe and the Pacific, and then energized America as “the greatest generation.” But if only 15 percent of today’s youth meet their mental health standards, are they really being prepared to protect, strengthen and energize America?

Pre-World War II, parents and homes, supported by the extended family, neighborhood, school and community, provided a solid foundation for that strength. In character development, parents are the primary teachers and the home the primary classroom.

But today, this parent-home foundation has been undermined, with the college placement emphasis elevating schooling’s influence above the home, leading parents to abdicate their authority to the school. The recent college admission scandal involving parents is a blatant example.

Pre-WWII, education didn’t emphasize college; but many returning GIs jumped at the opportunity to attend college under the GI Bill. One college president darkly predicted they would turn campuses into “educational hobo jungles.” However, the media ended up calling them our greatest college students.

They taught us that character can predict success for college as well as life. However, studies dismiss tests and grades as values for life; for example, AT&T found among its managers that “those who had higher scholastic-aptitude scores upon graduation from college were reliably less happy and more psychologically maladjusted by their mid-adult years” than those with lower scores.

As a teacher-coach, I eventually began to seriously question how much this emphasis was preparing kids to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.

In my calculus class, I was trying to tell a lazy and arrogant 14-year-old genius that his attitude would crucify him in life – while giving him my highest grade. Then I told a dedicated but deeply discouraged Vermont farm boy to ignore his feelings (“I work twice as hard as everyone else and get half as much out of it”) and trust that his character would ensure his goal of becoming a top engineer. But I was giving him my lowest grade.

(Years later, he did become a highly respected engineer, while the genius became unemployed, despite graduating from MIT at 18 with an A average.)

I ultimately founded the Hyde School in Bath in 1966 to test the premise that every individual is gifted with a unique potential, which I sought to support with a new college-prep curriculum based on character; specifically, courage, integrity, concern, curiosity and leadership.

I eagerly tracked the progress of our graduates to see if it was making a difference in their lives. The biggest difference factor I eventually found wasn’t Hyde – it was parents! After a funk, I realized, to really help kids, we have to help their parents.

So Hyde began an extensive program to address parental growth and family issues. We ultimately learned that when we strengthened parents and families, we empowered their children – for life.

Then our work with public schools led us to these conclusions:

Democratic education should begin helping students “Know Thyself” and develop their character. This requires a strong working relationship with parents and family. Literacy and learning remain essential to the process.

Student groups should begin teaching student responsibility for each other’s growth early on. Parents and teachers need to become mentors, sharing their life experience.

The lower grades should begin parent-teacher, home-school partnerships. Middle school should begin the transition to a more intellectually mature student who needs upgraded teacher, parent and peer relationships. High school students need increasing responsibility in their own education, their scholarship and in their leadership role in school and community.

So overall, character first, then scholarship.

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