Character development, not academic achievement, must come first in a true education for life.
During 51 years of teaching, I have painfully watched cheating become an integral part of American education and demean the deeper spirit and honor of growing American youngsters. We have only ourselves to blame.
Our amoral and unsound educational system has pathetically taught American kids to value academic achievement far more than integrity and character.
In this system, integrity may earn them a pat on the back, but honors and diplomas are strictly reserved for academic achievement. So kids are quick to recognize that cheating offers an easy way to win the prize, with a minimal chance of getting caught.
Ivory-towered educators blame amoral kids for this widespread dishonesty, and blindly expect holier-than-thou “honor” codes to magically reform them. But their honor codes do not teach integrity; they are designed to protect their schools’ integrity.
Furthermore, their codes completely ignore the sense of honor in kids. Kids—at their best—are committed to each other’s welfare, but “honor” codes expect them to believe that “ratting” on their buddy Charlie and getting him kicked out of school is really in his best interests.
It is amazing how little our society understands the adolescent mind. Students at a top prep school enthusiastically told me once how their new one-strike-and-you’re-out rule on drugs and alcohol was restoring their school’s prestige. I bluntly asked how many students were actually doing drugs and alcohol underground. They estimated 60 percent to 65 percent. I then asked, “Doesn’t the hypocrisy of knowing a classmate is being expelled for something most of you are doing bother you?” They adamantly said no; explaining that the rule was enhancing the school’s reputation. If you weren’t being “discreet” about your drug and alcohol use, you deserved to be kicked out. So much for integrity.
I left this screwed-up system in 1962. I founded the Hyde School in Bath, Maine, to see if we could develop character—courage, integrity, concern, curiosity, and leadership—as a better way to truly prepare kids for life. But I woodenly began with an honor code that, among other things, prescribed expulsion for serious offenses. I blindly expected this stance to uphold our school’s reputation for character.
I dropped this code once I realized that it was forcing kids to choose between protecting the school and protecting their classmates. Then we began to learn how to work together in order to develop the five qualities of character the school stressed, something that students, parents, and teachers alike came to believe in as a real preparation for life.
The biggest lesson we learned was this: Character is primarily developed by example. So we require teachers and parents to participate in a program that regularly addresses their own character and personal growth. It takes character to develop character.
This learning bond of trust was created because our school truly valued and honored character more than academic achievement. Kids are inherently fair. They believe character development creates a level playing field, while academic achievement clearly favors those with certain innate abilities and learning styles.
When the first Hyde graduates returned, they complained about the extensive cheating in college. When I asked, “Then why don’t you cheat?” they simply said, “Too much to lose.” Too bad American students today are stuck in a system that totally fails to teach them this deeper truth about integrity.
Today, under our school’s Brother’s Keeper ethic, students never hesitate to require “cheaters” to turn themselves in, because given their commitment to each other’s best, they recognize that such classmates need more help to recognize and internalize the powerful value of integrity.
The school disciplines cheaters, but as part of the help they need from us. This help is why at a Hyde graduation, where every senior speaks, you often hear the phrase, “You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”
We are able to create this brother’s-keeper ethic by turning present education upside down—valuing attitude over aptitude, effort over ability, and character over talent.
Over 97 percent of our students go on to four-year colleges. After all, academic excellence is essential to developing curiosity and intellectual character. There are now four Hyde schools, two of which are public schools: the Hyde Leadership School of New Haven, Conn., sending all graduates to college over the last three years; and the Hyde Leadership Public Charter School of Washington, slated to serve 1,050 students in grades K-12.
American kids desperately need our help to internalize character qualities like integrity. Whatever the value of our present system, we can’t ignore the increasing Enron debacles and Columbine tragedies; nor that 33 percent of Americans feel they have emotional problems, that our divorce rate is projected to reach 67 percent in the very near future, and that 6 million Americans are now in our criminal-justice system.
We must value attitude over aptitude, effort over ability, and character over talent.
Character development, not academic achievement, must come first in a true education for life. As Theodore Roosevelt reminds us, to educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.
Character development unites the efforts of students, parents, and teachers into a powerful team. It creates a superior level of academic excellence by teaching students to compete against their own best, which in turn enables them to use the help and synergy of their peers instead of just competing against them.
We Americans will need the guts to once again brave revolutionary change. But this change will help American kids develop more deeply their potential, in order to be all they can be in life.
And what they need is an education that first and foremost develops their character.
Joseph W. Gauld is the founder of Hyde Schools Inc., in Bath, Maine.