Expertise and Character

By Ronald A. Wolk — October 01, 1992 3 min read

“The supreme end of education,” said Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer and critic, “is expert discernment in all things—the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit.”

Dr. Johnson clearly believed that education cannot be value-free and that a truly educated person will have the “right” values. But what about graduates of elite universities who plunder the nation’s savings and loan institutions? Or the Nazi officers who hummed Wagnerian arias as they marched Jews to gas chambers?

It is possible for a person to be knowledgeable without being educated, by Dr. Johnson’s definition. This is not verbal hairsplitting, for it gets to the essence of what we mean by education. When people can emerge from 12 or more years of schooling steeped in knowledge but lacking values, something is obviously wrong with the educational system.

The three feature articles in this month’s issue bring to mind the relationship between education and values, especially the story of Georgia Gabor that begins on page 26.

Gabor, a Hungarian Jew, came to America in 1947, a survivor of the Holocaust that wiped out her family. In 1969, after years of struggle and unhappiness, she began teaching junior high school math in San Marino, Calif., and finally achieved a measure of peace and order.

But in 1984, shortly after publishing her autobiography, Gabor’s life became a nightmare. For the next eight years, she endured anti-Semitic epithets and threats carved on the doors and desks of her classroom and hurled at her by anonymous haters in letters and phone calls.

Gabor finally resigned and sued the school district for failing to deal with the persistent anti-Semitic harassment that she suffered.

Although the court will not rule on Gabor’s case until next spring, there is no doubt that she was the victim of obscene and menacing insults and threats. Nor is a trial and a ruling necessary for one to conclude that at least some members of the Huntington Middle School community have gone through the motions of education without becoming educated. Gabor’s story is even more alarming because it appears at a time when young Germans, wearing swastikas and shouting Sieg Heil, are attacking immigrants in cities across their nation.

Dr. Johnson’s observation poses a formidable question for schools. What kind of education not only fosters the ability to discern expertly—to distinguish right from wrong—but also then leads one to choose the good and the genuine over the bad and the bogus?

Traditionally, American education has subscribed to the catechismal approach to instilling values: the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Boy Scout Oath—all to be committed to memory and called upon for guidance in moments of ethical confusion and moral uncertainty.

But those who believe, as Dr. Johnson did, that the “supreme end of education” is both expertise and character, inextricably linked, argue for a process that focuses on thinking not memorization. The essence of education is an open mind—a willingness to consider new ideas, to view things from a different perspective, to receive and assess information objectively. A truly educated person listens to the arguments, sifts and weighs the evidence, and reaches rational conclusions. It is difficult, if not impossible, to follow that procedure and be a bigot.

The elementary teachers whom Susan Ohanian writes about in her new book, which we excerpt on page 20, believe in that kind of education. They have taken that frightening step of discarding old ideas for new ones, traditional methods for innovative ones. They are committed to helping their pupils learn to think for themselves and solve problems.

Charles Vidal, the maverick principal of Hanshaw Middle School whose story appears on page 30, motivates his largely working-class students to do their “personal best.” He encourages his students to confront important questions about themselves and their world, and, in the process, to forge value systems that will endure. That is the way to build expertise and character.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Expertise and Character