The Building of Character

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By Katherine Ogden and Mike Kennedy

It was a Sunday, the very first morning of a weeklong expedition into the wilderness — and already, ’Wick junior Tucker Calcano ’17 was all in.

He and a cadre of classmates from the Upper School had arrived at Camp Dudley on the shores of Lake Champlain just one day before.

“L ITTLE LOG CABINS AND deciduous trees scattered throughout the landscape, all overlooking a serene and picturesque lake,” he wrote in his journal. “A gorgeous place.”

It didn’t take very long at all for beauty to work its magic. By the very next morning, the muse made an appearance.

“Woke up — breathtaking view — feel like an inspired poet.” For the Upper School
junior, the power of education came in the experience. There was no textbook. No lecture hall. No new-fangled computer app offering the latest workaround or shortcut. Instead, the silence of the wilderness in winter and a budding camaraderie with his classmates brought him to that transformative moment. TUCKER’S EMOTIONAL and psychological journey to inspiration may well have happened in the only way it could, experts say.

“People who have studied character development through the ages have generally found hectoring lectures don’t help,” writes New York Times columnist and champion of character David Brooks.

 
His is an insight that shines light on a paradox for educators interested in teaching character. If we can’t teach character in the class- room, how, exactly, do we do it?

Some leading thinkers say community-building is the key. Here again, Brooks sheds some light. In a recent column, he quotes Kurt Hahn, a founder of Outward Bound: “‘It is the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: An enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible denial, and above all, compassion.

“‘All over the country, there are schools and organizations trying to come up with new ways to cultivate character. The ones I’ve seen that do it best, so far, are those that cultivate intense, thick community. Most of the time character is not an individual accomplishment. It emerges through joined hearts and souls, and in groups.”’

Others, including Hahn himself, have added experiential education to the mix. Yes, strong community is a piece of the puzzle, they say, but true character develops under a more complex umbrella of pedagogy best described as “experiential education.”

Brooks sheds more light in a passage from his 2015 book The Road to Character:

“The truth,” he writes, “was hammered home to me after I wrote a column expressing frustration with how hard it is to use the classroom experience to learn how to be good. A veterinarian named Dave Jolly sent me an email that cut to the chase:

“‘The heart cannot be taught in a classroom intellectually to students mechanically taking notes. Good, wise hearts are obtained through lifetimes of diligent effort to dig deeply within and heal lifetimes of scars. You can’t teach it or email it or tweet it. It has to be discovered within the depths of one’s own heart when a person is finally ready to go looking for it, and not before.’” Experts say experiential education may well be the only way to teach character, the only way for students to find that readiness to dig deep. And beyond that, it’s never been more important to try. More than ever, they say, today’s world imperils character development with threats coming in many forms — technology being one of the biggest. In a development that has lifelong ramifications, teachers are increasingly seeing the effects of a shortened attention span in the classroom. Brooks made the connection to character in a recent commencement speech at Dartmouth:

“We live in a society filled with decommitment devices. Tinder, OkCupid, Instagram, Reddit; the entire Internet is commanding you to sample one thing after another. Our phones are always beckoning us to shift our attention span. If you can’t focus your attention for 30 seconds, how can you make a commitment for life?” AT BRUNSWICK, character education has been the essence of the School’s mission since its founding, nearly 115 years ago. Now, an initiative formally launched at the beginning of this academic year involves the entire School community in thinking about and acting on ways to articulate and further strengthen Brunswick’s long-standing commitment to Courage, Honor, and Truth.

The Brunswick Trust cultivates experiential educatioin every corner of the School, from ’Wick’s youngest students in Pre School classrooms on Maple Avenue to new leadership roles for Lower School students, from a new vocabulary of character infused in every Middle School classroom to a new Outdoor Education Program that sees Upper School students tackle winter camping. As such, the Trust really serves to deepen and define the School’s commitment to the values it has always held dearest.

“Academic, artistic, and athletic pursuits all have their place,” Headmaster Tom Philip said. “But without strength of character, those pursuits will prove meaningless. “And if there is anything we are striving for, it is to prepare our boys to lead lives of meaning. Lives of purpose. Lives of fulfillment.” The initiative has already seen every member of the Brunswick faculty complete an online Coursera course, “Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms,” with a representative from each division attending other conferences and lectures. As the year has progressed, results have accrued quickly — all geared toward articulating tangible ways to teach boys about character and leadership; offering vocabulary around character; and providing a “menu” of leadership and character development opportunities beyond what’s traditional. Now, as Brunswick moves ahead, a School community traditionally and intensely committed to the building of character is in an ever-stronger position continually to develop and focus on large and small experiences designed to have powerful and lasting impacts on students at every level.

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