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CONQUERING THE CRISIS IN CHARACTER
Wouldn’t it be nice if people just did what they said they would do?
Imagine a roofer you hire to fix your roof, who actually does it and stands behind his work. Or a politician who promises to cut your taxes if elected and actually does so. Or a student who signs an oath of honesty and never cheats. Or a man who takes a solemn vow in marriage to be loyal to his wife, and is.
These are the kind of people you want to be around, to lead you and to have working for you. You know where they stand and can trust that they will do what they said they will do.
Now imagine an entire country where all people are judged not on their race, their wealth, fame or success, but, first and foremost, on whether they keep their promises and always do what they say. Where a person is judged on whether his word is his bond. On his honesty and integrity. Isn’t that a place where we would all like to live?
This attribute is called character.
Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Character is a word that has many dimensions and meanings. Webster’s Dictionary defines “character” (noun) broadly as (i) qualities that distinguish an individual – makeup or personality; (ii) a marking or printed letter; (iii) an odd, eccentric person; or (iv) a pattern of moral and ethical behavior.
Because character has so many meanings, its essential meaning can be blurred. Therefore, it is important to define character in its most basic, universal terms. The most relevant definition of character is “a pattern of behavior, thoughts and feelings based on universal principles, moral strength, integrity and ‘the line you never cross’.” Your character is evidenced by your life’s values as well as your virtuous actions in both the moral and performance areas of your life.
Good character is something that an individual either has or does not have. A person of character has principles of integrity that govern his actions every day. Good character is simple to understand. We all know it when we see it. It has been said that good character takes a lifetime to build. It is the most valuable thing you have, and nobody but you can ever take it away. But your good character can be lost in an instant. Once lost, it is very difficult to regain.
Why Character is Important
Living a life of good character is in everyone’s self-interest. It is the most important gift you can give yourself and will benefit you forever through thick and thin in ways you may not yet imagine.
Besides the individual, character in life also is essential for our society to function successfully. Each individual must do his or her part.
When you don’t exhibit good character, other people get hurt. But you hurt yourself even more.
Your integrity is your most important virtue.
When you cheat, your “success’ is false. When you break a promise, you are showing that your word is meaningless. When you lie, you deceive others and lose their respect.
All of these examples show the consequences of bad character, which destroys your reputation and break the trust others have in you. As Billie Jean King said, “Saying one thing and doing another shows lack of respect for yourself and others and can destroy the trust others have in you. Every aspect of your life gets better when you are truly honest with yourself and others”.
Without your good reputation and trustworthiness, your relationships fail.
Relationships are the foundation for your success in life.
For example, when you destroy the relationship with your friends, you will have no friends. You will be isolated and alone.
When a student promises not to cheat but does so, taking unfair advantage and putting himself ahead of others when he does not deserve it, it can ruin his reputation and go on his academic record forever.
When a businessman makes a promise to customers and doesn’t deliver, he destroys the relationship with his customers. Customers go elsewhere and his business fails.
When people borrow money and do not repay it, they destroy their relationship with lenders, place burdens on themselves and their families and forfeit their ability to borrow forever.
Our lives are comprised of a series of relationships like those above. By breaking your relationships, you break the foundation for success in your life.
What is true success? For example, who is more successful? Someone who is famous and makes a great deal of money? Or someone who has no fame, makes little money, but is a great parent?
Today in our schools, is too much emphasis being placed on “good grades” and “high test scores”, or “getting into the right college” – so much so that these things, rather than good character, are how we define success?
Character is key for success for individuals, the community and society.
Promises As Contracts
When an individual promises to do something, he is making an agreement with himself and someone else. He obligates himself to do something in order to get something in return. In law, that promise is called a contract.
A contract defines the relationship between the parties. Contracts are agreements between people that create obligations that govern people’s actions and expectations. Adhering to a contract that you make and meeting your promised obligations demonstrates integrity and good character. And it validates the relationship.
People who lack character say or promise one thing, but they don’t perform. Oh yes, they always have one or more reasons, or excuses. But character is binary – you either do what you promised or you don’t. There is no middle ground, no maybe. Character is based only on your actions or what you did, not your state of mind. If you perform, the relationship prospers. If not, it fails.
Good character benefits everyone. The person whose roof is properly fixed gets satisfaction and value for his money. But what about the roofer who fulfilled his promises? Perhaps he had to work harder and longer than he expected to do the job right. Maybe he could have gone on to another job and made more money that day if he had cut some corners, and the homeowner might never have known. So what did the roofer get from meeting or exceeding his obligations?
First, he can look at himself in the mirror because he did the right thing. He gains personal pride and the satisfaction of fulfilling his promises by doing the job right. Second, he has satisfied his customer. That is good for his business in the long run. By doing things right every day, he earns a reputation that rewards him many times over in the long run. He gets more customers and he builds trust and strong relationships with his customers. He makes higher profits and has greater success. He becomes a leader others will follow, and he is able to attract loyal employees of good character – people who do what they say they will do. They demonstrate good character every day to him and his customers and, in so doing, they help him grow his business more than he ever could himself. That’s a business model that is durable and can expand forever, as long as the team continues to demonstrate good character.
Experience has proven that businesses which embody a culture of integrity over the long run and earn the trust of their customers and become the most successful businesses in the world. See Anna Bernasek, The Economics of Integrity, and Jon M. Huntsman, Winners Never Cheat.
What about society? It is obvious that when people are trusted and fail to demonstrate good character, many people suffer and society is harmed. Bernie Madoff promised to safeguard and grow people’s money that was given to him to invest by folks who trusted him. Instead, he stole the money. Many people were harmed financially and he is now in jail. Madoff ran what is called a Ponzi scheme – you promise investors big returns but distribute money to old investors from money new investors give you to invest. Eventually, the fraud is discovered. It all blows up and most of the investors are “left holding the bag”. Madoff knew it was a big lie from the start.
Looking around the world, you see the importance of character in societies. Many undeveloped countries cannot grow economically, even though they have good workers who are willing to work for a low wage. But no legitimate business can function there. Why? Because these countries have a culture of corruption. A promise is worth nothing because the society is not based on the importance of good character and doing what you say you will do. There is no sanctity of contract. Trust is lost and the business relationship between people breaks down.
Even if the country is a democracy, the leaders promise one thing and do another, stealing for themselves all the money they can, all the while blaming others for their country’s sorry financial state. Few will invest or lend their money to a business in such a country – where people do not abide by contracts they make. There is no durability or reliability to the system and the risk is too great. Since no one will invest, those societies cannot grow economically. Hence, all the people suffer, except for those few in power.
A Crisis in Character
Sixty years ago, character was taught routinely in our churches, our schools, our homes and our media. Children growing up in those times had a reference point. Today, “moral character” (teaching students to do the honest, ethical and right things) is rarely taught in our schools or even mentioned. Instead, our schools are teaching “performance character” (teaching students to maximize their performance – achieving “good grades” and “high test scores”). We need to do both.
Today, individuals in our society are taught that achieving “success” is more important than how that success is achieved. That obtaining an outcome is more important than how you got there and the principles you adhere to.
The results are troubling. In a recent survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 70% of the high school students surveyed admitted that they cheat in school, but 91% said that they were satisfied with their own ethics and character. Yet 97% said that it is important for a person to be a person of good character! Children and professional athletes are being taught to cheat in order to succeed in athletics. Businessmen defraud their shareholders for personal gain. Politicians cannot be trusted to do what they said they would do. And, in Ponzi schemes far greater than Madoff’s, they promise economic benefits to voters while knowing that it is impossible to pay for them in the future.
We all feel a loss of trust and know that these things are wrong, and we see the harm that is resulting. We know the long-term repercussions are serious. We all deplore the acts but shrug them off. We feel we have no control over the acts of others. But that’s not true. We have forgotten the key truth and principle that no one has stated: none of these things would be done by people of good character.
The first step is to recognize that what we are facing today in our country is a “crisis in character”.
People need to be taught once again the principles of good character, to understand it, articulate it, live it and demand it in ourselves and others. Instead of condemning specific acts or focusing on outcomes, we need to first focus on the underlying foundation that determines people’s actions – their character.
Character takes a lifetime to build but can be lost in an instant. Once lost, it is difficult to regain. Often, people decide to act based on short term gain or an easy fix to a problem. Failure to recognize the consequences of these acts can be disastrous. By continually focusing on the importance of character (through learning and study), you strengthen your character foundation and gain a better understanding of the true long-term consequences of your actions. Nothing is more important for success in your life.
We need to start close to home – one person at a time. If each of us, as parents, teachers, businessmen, coaches and voters, requires that anyone we support or deal with must exhibit honesty and integrity, and that there will be consequences if character is lacking, we can start changing our country today. And it is crucial to focus on our young children, for what we plant today, we will reap tomorrow.
Today we face a far more difficult environment than sixty years ago. There are many more unfavorable influences to fight today – things that affect our children greatly without the offset from proper character mentoring. Thus, besides our parents, the schools, where children spend so many hours, offer the best opportunity to help our children acquire good character. Therefore, it is more important than ever that all of our K-12 schools in the country reinstate comprehensive character education programs in all grades.
In 1851, Herbert Spencer recognized the importance of character in education by stating the principle that “education has for its object the formation of character.” As such, character education was the most important course of study in America – ahead of math, English and other subjects. The goal was to create not only smart kids but good kids.
Yet in the last 40 years, most schools in our county have forgotten Spencer’s fundamental principle. In addition, schools today are required by the government to focus exclusively on academic performance. Teachers and schools are evaluated primarily on their students’ results on standardized tests. Character education is not only no longer a curriculum requirement, but the funding for character education has been halted.
Another problem has been in the composition of what was being taught as character education. Some educators thought that teaching moral character constituted “brain washing” or reflected religious values or believed that it was unnecessary – that children would form their own moral codes without guidance. As a result, many character programs, when they do exist, offer watered down and ineffective programs which are not comprehensive or continuous enough to be effective.
Comprehensive Character Education
The research shows that comprehensive character education programs that develop a culture of character in the schools yield the best long term results (www.Character.org). Bullying and other bad behaviors are reduced and students are more successful.
Experts in the character education field say that a successful character education program must be much more than sound bites and lip service. Comprehensive character education covers not only “performance character”, but also “moral character”. The goal is to create an awareness of character in the school from the principal all the way down to the students. The character program must be broad, continual, in-depth and integrated into the whole school – beyond the classroom to the athletic fields, the lunchroom and the halls. Most important, there should be a separate curriculum for each grade, age appropriate yet part of a holistic K-12 program that allows a student to progress as he or she grows and matures through adolescence.
Teaching respect, good manners, ethics, self control, positive attitude, responsibility and perseverance – encouraging students to grow in values and virtues from a young age; training students to be good listeners, critical thinkers, charitable and servant-leaders; and having a Code of Conduct that all students subscribe to with peer enforcement. These are just a few of the things to include.
Finally, all schools are different. All teachers, students and principals are unique. Therefore, to be successful, all character education programs need to be tailored to the specific needs and conditions of each school. And it is important that the parents understand and are aware of the character education program, so that they can support it and reinforce it at home. Ideally, a comprehensive character education program will be of great help to parents in helping them develop their child to be both a good and successful person.
Reinforcement and Coordination with Parents
Living with good character, and teaching it, is a life’s work. It takes constant strength and courage. And it can be difficult and conflicting, especially when people focus on short term outcomes and do not keep character principles in mind.
For example, consider a high school college-bound senior who signs an honor code (a contract) but violates it by consuming alcohol on a senior trip and is caught by his teacher. Under the honor code, this violation is reported to the principal, who is obligated to enter it on the student’s record. The principal also must report the infraction to the college that had accepted the student. This could affect his college acceptance. What should the student’s parents do?
Many parents today would pressure the principal not to enforce the rules and not report it to the college. They would argue that their child’s college education should not be threatened by this relatively harmless act. In essence, they are saying that in this case it is acceptable for their child to violate his honor code promises. They are acting based on their desired outcome, not on the principle of the importance of good character.
Parents requiring character in their child would strongly support the principal in following the rules of the honor code. They would ask the student whether he knowingly signed the honor code and whether he violated the written policy. If so, they would tell him that this was a breach of his honesty, integrity and character. Such parents consider this a “teachable moment” – they are standing their ground and teaching their child the importance of doing what he promised to do – and, if not, to suffer the consequences. They see this as a valuable lesson that will bolster their child’s character and values for the rest of his life, regardless of the immediate consequences.
By taking any other approach, the parents would be teaching the child that a desired outcome – getting into college – is more important than the principle that a person must do what he promised to do. They would be encouraging dishonesty and bad character in their child. Because the desired outcome would trump good character, this puts the child on a slippery slope. A child who is taught that it is acceptable to violate his principles of character will be a lesser and less successful person in the long run.
We have much work ahead as a society to overcome our Crisis in Character. However, the benefits for our people and our society are not only worth pursuing, but essential.
Developing systematic programs to teach character is important to accelerate the understanding and appreciation of the importance of character in our society. Tailoring a customized character curriculum to a specific organization is necessary to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of any character initiative. Developing and implementing comprehensive character education programs for our public, private and charter schools is a good place to begin.
The Hamlin Family Foundation founded CITRS Inc. to do just that. CITRS is a non-profit, non-denominational character education company focusing on: public, charter and private schools, after-school and out-of-school education organizations, and other youth organizations.
Character education and development is all that CITRS does. It delivers customized, comprehensive character education programs and training. CITRS, “teaches the teachers” how to teach character most effectively.