Executive Perspective

Building Villages by Creating Character

by Paul D. Houston

Every educator is familiar with the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.” It is a nice but inadequate sentiment for modern America.

I have visited African villages and seen their focus on children. In Kenya, the Masai greet each other with the question, “How are the children?” America would be better off if we could say that to each other with meaning. But we don’t and we can’t rely on the village to raise our children because we no longer have even a sense of village.

Educators must find a way to become village builders, and I think that starts with helping our children see that as their role. We have to build character in our children so they become their “brother’s keepers.”

Sadly, given the toxic values and commercialization that bombard them everyday, we are raising generations who know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Root Causes
Schools and school districts lie at the geographic and psychological centers of most communities, but they have been historically shut off from them. The great irony is that you can’t educate children in isolation from the greater community.

More recently schools have begun to welcome the community and have reached out to the community as a place to educate children and to find support for them. Public education was created to teach a sense of civic virtue in children so they could become contributing and responsible members of the community. Public education’s job is to create citizens who care and who have a core of character that makes them contributors to the greater good.

After the horrific Columbine massacre, a lot of soul searching and research was done to see what the root causes of the event were and how we might make certain it did not happen again. One piece of research involved the FBI’s attempt to develop a “shooter profile” that might identify those individual characteristics that might serve as fingerprints for possible future shooters.

Unlike other profiling that had been more successful, such as serial killers, the FBI came up cold on the school shooters. It wasn’t the characteristics of the child shooters that were so identifiable as it was those of the community where they lived. It appears certain communities are more likely to incubate disillusioned and disconnected children who then mature into killers of their classmates.

Quite simply, the plant’s growth is determined by the soil in which it grows. Healthy communities produce healthy children and communities that have shortcomings endanger their children. Working with communities becomes crucial to producing successful children.

For far too long we have seen schools shy away from the formal teaching of values and character. We recently have seen an upsurge in concern for the teaching of civics as voter turnout has dropped off and national polls show a woeful lack of understanding about such fundamental underpinnings of our society as the Bill of Rights and the Constitutional guarantees afforded all Americans. But trying to teach civics without teaching character is like trying to teach reading without teaching the alphabet. Character forms the building blocks for becoming a good citizen. Raising a nation of good citizens is the real homeland security for America. Good character gained in school forms the twin towers of our democracy — understanding the right of every citizen to pursue his or her own dreams and possibilities and the communities need to support its members.

In essence, the compact we have with each other is to support the common ground upon which we all stand. Education takes place in the space between humans and the responsibility of educators is to make that space safe for the engagement of learning. We create that space by helping our children develop character.
Many of us remember the movie “March of the Penguins.” One of the most striking scenes for me was the one that involved the father penguins caring for the eggs while the mothers went to the sea in search of food for the family. The village of papa penguins had to face the brutal Antarctic winter, keeping the eggs and themselves from freezing.

As the winds howled around them, they huddled together and rotated positions. Each penguin had time on the outside of the circle with his back to the wind. The group kept rotating so that those who were on the outside could work their way to the center where it was warmest and most protected and those on the inside moved gradually to the outer limits to face the cold. They saved the children and themselves by sharing the dangers and the comfort. That is really what community is about and that is really what schools should be teaching children.

Gandhi’s Advice
Thankfully, things are changing. National programs like Character Counts, Operation Respect and the Character Education Partnership’s National Schools of Character program have moved onto the national stage. These national programs support the work of local schools in dealing with this critical issue.

Further, school districts across the country have initiated their own programs of building character from teaching values to requiring service learning.

As America’s schools move through the NCLB years and the incessant demand for more accountability in academics, it would be good to remember the advice of Gandhi that you can’t have knowledge without character. You can’t build character without a whole school and a whole village, and we must recognize that tomorrow’s villages will be built by today’s children.

“How are the children?” They’ll be just fine if we all work together.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.