Saturday, April 30, 2011


My daughter was inducted into the National Junior Honor Society this week. Part of the ceremony was the reading of the 5 pillars of the society--Character, Scholarship, Leadership, Service and Citizenship. In the discussion of Character, there was this line. (I won't use quote marks, as I'm sure I'm not getting it precisely the way they read it, but it's like this:)

The issue of character is about self-control.

I found that fascinating. We talk too little about self-control in school. We talk about expressing yourself, maximizing your potential, empowering yourself. But we don't talk much of self-control, self-discipline, or, heaven forbid, self-denial.

When a student is bothering--bullying, intimidating or harassing--another student, we talk of how the bullied student feels, or the consequences of getting caught as a bully. We appeal to self-interest, in other words. Imagine yourself the victim--YOU wouldn't like that, so don't do it to somebody else. Or, if YOU get caught, it'll be bad for you.

We don't appeal to character--self-control. We don't say, you need to have the discipline to be thoughtfully concerned about the people around you.

Both kinds of appeal are going to be difficult. But the former, essentially appealing to the self-interest of the bully, seems to me a dead end. We all abuse other people--in varying degrees and quantities, and we do it primarily to advance or protect our own egos. Sure adults do it in calmer, more sophisticated ways. We tend to do it bureaucratically, if we can. (I'll have to explain that some other time, I think.) But we all incline that way. Lowering someone else elevates me in comparison.

The appeals to self-interest have a difficult time working, for they simply reveal the internal logic that actually stimulates bullying. How would the other person feel? Lousy...that's the point. And I'm getting a payoff! So I'll take the risk of getting caught, because I probably won't, and when I get away with it the benefits are pretty good.

I think maybe this is why my school always see a spike in bullying right after the anti-bullying training. (This plus the "reporting effect"--higher incidence of reports because of 'encouragement' to recognize bullying more.)

Next step? ( we say in education) That's the hard one. Character education that focuses on self-control. But we have to do this in a comprehensively consistent fashion. Problem is that all our social norms and expectations push us away from self-control.

There's too little of the kind of awareness and acknowledgment that G.K. Chesterston, the fascinatingly wide-ranging thinker, exhibited in response to a newspaper invitation to explain 'what is wrong with the world.' He wrote simply:

‘Dear Sirs:
I am.
Sincerely Yours,
G. K. Chesterton.’

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