Schools Must Become Environments That Instill Virtue

Teaching children “virtue” is the key to solving poverty, insists a reader and regular critic. That’s how we break the “cycle of dependency,” he said.

To do this, he argues, we must “indoctrinate our children from the early years with a sense of virtue through education.”

Well, “indoctrinate” threw me off. Reminded me of the old Soviet Union brainwashing children as well as my delightful time in boot camp. So, I thought, while it may be permissible for parents to indoctrinate children, that’s hardly the role for schools.

Then, another reader sent me a public policy article published by Wharton University. In it the author wrote about a “set of skills sometimes called non-cognitive skills, sometimes called character strengths, things like grit and curiosity, conscientiousness, perseverance, self-control.”

Hmmm.

These sound a lot like traditional the “cardinal virtues” of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude.

“I remain convinced that these are important capacities for kids to have,” said Paul Tough, author of Helping Children Succeed.

The bestselling writer goes on to say that these virtues are not “the kind of skills that you can teach in school the way you teach math or reading or geography or anything else.” Rather, he says, research suggests “they are more the product of a child’s environment.”

Hmmm.

In the early 1950s, C.S. Lewis postulated that people are born with an innate sense of right from wrong. These days, apparently, that sense must be resuscitated to function in many children.

Parents have the primary responsibility to create environments that instill virtue in children, Tough says, but schools, particularly in high-poverty areas, must take responsibility too.

In his epochal Book of Virtues, William Bennett equates virtue with morality. In the introduction he wrote: “For children to take morality seriously they must be in the presence of adults who take morality seriously.”

Tough said adults can create an environment in the classroom that “makes kids able to persevere, to exercise self-control, to behave in all of the ways that are going to maximize their future opportunities.”

In his book, Tough tells of schools in high poverty areas with innovative programs that motivate children and give them a “real sense of community and connection.” He cites others that give kids “work that is more challenging, more rigorous and more meaningful” which changes their level of motivation. He said some charter schools are able to create “environments for kids that make them feel that sense of connection, feel that sense of challenge.”

Hmmm.

He’s talking about positive motivation. That’s different from the negative motivation “indoctrination” makes me think of. Looks like my perception of indoctrination is too narrow.

So, thanks to my readers for indoctrinating me.

Still and all, it will not be enough for the occasional classroom to create virtuous environments. Research shows children, particularly those for whom virtue is not modeled at home, must be consistently exposed to and expected to exhibit virtuous behavior. Virtuous environments must become whole school endeavors.

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