Monday, September 19, 2011


Who are your heroes and why does it matter?

We emulate out heroes; we want to be more like them; we strive to achieve what they have achieved.

Choosing the right heroes helps you to build your character. Choosing the wrong heroes undermines your character.

According to Paul Tough’s Sunday Times Magazine story children at the toney private school called Riverdale Country School have been subjected to a self-esteemist form of character education.

Better yet, parents pay enormous sums of money to allow administrators and counselors to deconstruct their children’s character. One assumes that they do not know better or do not dare question the school’s authority.

Children at the school do not learn how to compete, how to strive, how to work hard, or how to excel. They learn to have a heart full of the right kinds of feelings.

A counselor expressed her viewpoint: ““When I think of good character, I think: Are you fair? Are you honest in dealings with other people? Are you a cheater?.... “I don’t think so much about: Are you tenacious? Are you a hard worker? I think, Are you a good person?”

Tough describes her attitude: “Character, as far as I could tell, was being defined at Riverdale mostly in terms of helping other people — or at least not hurting their feelings.” He adds that it was “a blueprint for niceness.”

Psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson call it “a finger-wagging guilt trip.”

They are correct. These children are being submitted to a regimen that will produce a politically correct form of moral deformity.

When asked by their teachers to name people they took to be heroes the children mostly chose people who had martyred themselves for civil or human rights. Among them we find Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who immolated himself to protest an oppressive government and ignited a revolution.

While self-immolation might earn you martyrdom, do we really want to count it as a heroic gesture?

Sometimes people sacrifice themselves for good causes. Sometimes for causes that are not so good.

But, does that really make them heroes we want children to emulate. What would a child have to do if he wanted to emulate Mohamed Bouazizi? Sacrifice his life to a cause?

And what would constitute a fitting sacrifice? Would a bad report card be a sufficient sacrifice? Should he drop out of school in order to to protest grievances? Should he join ACORN?

Keep in mind that self-sacrificing martyrs do not become martyrs because they have worked hard, or because they have been trustworthy and responsible and loyal.

If the child’s hero is Alex Rodriguez he will devote more time and effort to improving his baseball skills. If his hero is Douglas McArthur he will aim at a career in the military. If his hero is George Washington he might aspire to military or political success. If his hero is Steve Jobs he will set out to focus on learning about computers.

A child who chooses the right role model will aspire to excellence. A child who chooses the wrong role model might sacrifice himself for the right cause, but his work will surely suffer for it.

The right role models are leaders; they are not solitary individuals. They work for the good of the team; they exhibit sportsmanship, discipline, and perseverance in the face of failure.

Tough’s article wonders how children learn good character. They do not learn it by being brainwashed into the self-sacrificial morality of guilt trips. They learn good character by competing for good grades in class, by participating in athletic teams or school plays or math leagues, by joining the boy scouts or the girl scouts or a junior ROTC program.

You do not build character by doing therapy. 

You do not build character by learning about yourself, by understanding why you have bad character or by learning that you can change your character by changing the way you think.

You build character by learning and following the rules of good behavior. You do not need to know why these rules exist; you do not need to know where they came from. You need merely to follow them.

Also, you learn discipline by being disciplined. You do not learn it by being worshiped as infallible. You learn perseverance by being pushed beyond your limits. You do not learn it by being coddled into a moral stupor.


David Foster said...

In Narnia, Lucy asks if Aslan the lion is safe.

"'Safe!" replies Mr Beaver. "Of course he's not safe!' replied Beaver. 'But he's good."

Robert Pearson said...

I hear from my sources that this article is the buzz at a whole lot of political offices today, and since the "big seven" traits of success can be learned, taught, and apply to all races, creeds and colors at all times and places, AND since this was published by the NYT, it has left the liberal wing in a panic. Because this would seem to leave the PC program for education in the dustbin of history. This obviously should be immediately integrated into every school in the country, if we Really Care about the Children.

I eagerly await the letters to the editor for some attempted put down...

Valo said...

I think you are missing the point about this article. Look at the title, the character is build by failures.
I also think this is what is wrong with the school system: the system is teaching kids how to obey and memorize, not how to succeed is life.
Having good character traits helps one to overcome obstacles in life.

JP said...

You have to develop psycholigical resilience by being stretched beyond just slightly beyond where you are now.

Competition has to be tempered by hard rules and some sense that you are working on some kind of internal development, otherwise you are just out to destroy your competition in a form of total war.

I dislike intellectual competition because under extreme stress, I do not do well at all. The goal can't be "to win" otherwise the ends "winning" end up justifying the breaking of all underlying rules to achieve the brass ring.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

True enough, character is built by knowing how to deal with failure. Yet, you can only fail if you are engaged in competition. And where competition pushes you to work hard and to excel.

I realize that people believe that the school system is trying too hard to teach children how to memorize, but children can certainly compete at memorization. And obedience is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for those schools-- of which there are too many-- where there is none.

Most self-esteemist schools do not much care about teaching children to compete because they want children to be creative free spirits, brimming with confidence regardless of whether or not the results confirm their own self-judgment.

I am hoping that Robert (Wahrheit) is right about the reaction to the Times piece. I would be interested in hearing about the reaction from the parents who are spending a fortune to send their children to a private school that is in the business of deforming their character.

LordSomber said...

For those who are their own worst critic, the greatest competition can be with themselves.
This can be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Heroes... My heroes are men like PW, Royal Marines, who played a bagpipe onto the beach of WWII Philippines, slung his pipes, unslung his rifle and fought. My father, who worked in nuclear weapons for 30 years and kindly caught insects in the house to release them outside. And women like my wife who bore me a daughter and a son cheerfully, while nurturing the best in each of us.

What do they have in common? A hard, judgmental protection of good and kindness. Making a place for kindness in this world is hard, uncompromising work. Sometimes it requires unkindness and even great violence.

Avoiding pain and conflict and eschewing violence leads to great unkindness in time. Kindness does not beget kindness in this fallen world. It is not a gift, it's wrested from the unkind. The kids in your article will learn that, but not all will survive the lesson learned too late. That is unkind of their teachers.

Here's to the heroes who are tough enough to make it safe to be kind to each other!


Rlebo said...

I have to say I disagree with your opinion here where you state that a child learns good character by competing, and not through "therapy" or "learning about yourself, by understanding why you have bad character or by learning that you can change your character by changing the way you think."

A competitive child might learn discipline, but will not necessarily learn character. Character also involves humility, knowing one's limits, making room for the other, self-sacrifice, independent thinking in the face of mass persuasion--and a host of other traits one does NOT learn by getting good grades or winning a sports meet.

One can have good character and not be a good student or athlete. Conversely, one can be a great student or star baseball player and be self-absorbed, materialistic, and a follower.

Socrates said "a life unexamined is not worth living." Just because today's understanding of examination of one's life is in a therapeutic vein, that does not mean self-examination should be ignored; in fact, that is the beginning of development of good character.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

To succeed at competition requires discipline, respect for the rules, hard work, training, and sportsmanship... among other character traits. Success does breed humility since the people who are most successful tend to be most humble about their success. Others who do not enjoy success tend to inflate their self-esteem, to the detriment of their character.