Making the Case

So why should you even care about character education? It may be helpful to learn four things, to help you better understand why I focus on nurturing the flourishing of human goodness.

Why Do I Dedicate My Career to Nurturing the Flourishing of Human Goodness?

In two words: Tikicun Olam.

This is a Hebrew phrase meaning to heal the world. There is an ancient origin story that says that when God created the world, the materials used were taken from large crocks (which is where food and other materials were stored in those days) and that some of them were damaged in the process of creation. Therefore, God charged humans with restoring the damage done in the act of creation. This parable offers a great moral mandate to all of us. We should engage the world and we should live our lives in ways that are most likely to leave it a better place because of our how we lived while in it. That is one way we should be in the world.

My leverage point for Tikkun Olam, for healing the world, is as a psychologist who specializes in the development of children and adolescents, especially their moral development. By working to improve how we nurture the flourishing of human goodness in children and adolescents, I can contribute to healing the world.

After all, we cannot create a moral world without moral people. As it says at the beginning of Tom Lickona’s book Raising Good Children, “A child is the only known substance from which a responsible adult can be made.” There simply is no future without children, and there is no moral future without moral children. This book is a recipe for how we can heal the world by nurturing the moral development of children, and helping them carry the torch of Tikkun Olam in turn by being more disposed to heal the world as well.

Do I believe in progress, decline, or randomness?

I am a long-haul optimist. I think that the history of the human species has been one of long-term moral progress. There are two books that most influenced this view for me. The first was The History of Childhood written by Lloyd DeMause in 1974. It traces the history of human conceptions of childhood, child development, and the corresponding ways of treating and parenting children. It was a clear journey from cold, harsh, even cruel and violent treatment of children in European Medieval times (and in US Colonial times) to more and more enlightened and compassionate treatment. The second was Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature. It presents a historical analysis of violence in the Western world, showing that violence has consistently declined over thousands of years. We are consistently growing less violent.

Now these two—and related—arguments work only if you pull back the lens and look at long sweeps of time. Certainly, the closer in you focus, the more you can see variability. Human moral evolution needs to be seen over long sweeps of time. Ask yourself this: When more than 100 years ago would you rather have lived? Think about health, safety, longevity, the rule of law, human rights, power distribution, etc. The answer is, “Never.” That is particularly poignant if you are a child, a woman, a member of a minority group, elderly, poor, have a disability, etc. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it most succinctly, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” in his paraphrasing of the nineteenth-century American abolitionist minister, Theodore Parker. President Barack Obama so loved Reverend King’s quote that he had it woven into a rug displayed on the floor in the Oval Office of the White House.

Of course, there are real human weaknesses at play all around us, and they need to be addressed directly in their current forms. However, they do not mean that we are all going to hell in a handbasket. They just mean we remain, as we always will, imperfect, and there is room to improve.

Character education is not about desperation or panic. It is not a last resort or the proverbial finger plugging the leak in the dike. It is not a tourniquet or a last chance. It is an eternal human obligation and endeavor. And it is certainly not a short-term goal or quick fix. Being our best selves means caring about the future and in being part of making a better future more possible and real.

Heraclitus, the classic Greek philosopher who lived over 2,500 years ago, said that "Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.” Like a fine wine, goodness, whether within a person’s lifetime or over the longer haul for the human species, takes time and thoughtful, deliberate care. Tikkun Olam tells us that it is the obligation of all human beings to dedicate themselves to this eternal project.

My friend and colleague, Bill Puka, a philosopher, once described what he called "developmental love.” He defined it as loving a person in a way that maximizes their optimal development. Love people by doing what is in their best developmental interests. According to Aristotle (who lived about a century after Heraclitus), flourishing is the highest achievement of human development (he called it Eudaimonia). Flourishing, for Aristotle, is the full development of moral virtues. Combining Puka, Heraclitus, and Aristotle leads us to the notion of developmental love as the commitment to the possibility and gradual development of the full complement of moral virtues. We will explore this further when we discuss Developmental Pedagogy, the sixth Design Principle of PRIMED.

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