Reminder from MLK memorial dedication: Keep character development in education

28 Oct

During a recent visit to my alma mater, Boston University, I was once again moved by the memorial erected on campus to the school’s most famous alumni, Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a sculpture of doves in flight over the center of campus, and it always makes me think of education as the wind beneath our wings.

In an essay King wrote for the Maroon Tiger in 1947 titled, “The Purpose of Education” he said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…intelligence plus character—that is the goal of education.”

King’s inclusion of character as a dimension of the educational process is consistent with his strong belief that one day African-American children would be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. I think he’d be disappointed that character development has overtime become unhinged from the attainment of education.

Report cards, for instance, no longer report on conduct, which let you know how much trouble you’d been causing in school. Conduct communicated volumes about the relationship between character and getting a good education: self-control, respect, citizenship and fairness, among others.

Recent research by Angela Duckworth finds that exceptional character strengths, like persistence, tenacity and persuasion may be indispensible to making it to graduation day.  We can take what are perceived largely as reasons to expect academic failure – poverty, absent fathers, undereducated parents – and deliberately focus children in these circumstances on transforming the lessons of these challenges into the characteristics of strength they and all of us need to be successful.

To do so we must first, believe no matter the background or circumstance of any child, that he or she is capable of learning and achieving and second, intentionally focus on developing character strengths using both classroom lessons and students’ unique experiences to draw connections to the character strengths they can develop and hone.

King understood that character and academic achievement were inextricably tied. Tolerance, fairness, respect and diligence were needed not just for people to get along, but to create an environment conducive to learning.

Earlier this month, the King memorial was unveiled at the National Mall in Washington D.C. Much will be said about King’s legacy as a civil rights leader and how he took the fight for freedom and justice to the streets; how he longed for the day when we’d be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.

At the memorial to King at our alma mater, I saw doves flying free and was reminded that we build character at home and in the classroom. That’s where the fight for justice and equality really begins.


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