Character Building in American Schools

June 12, 2007 § 4 Comments

As a parent what concern is at the forefront of your mind most? For my wife and I it is education, as time moves on I see that education is hands down the most important issue when discussing our children and their future. However, when I say education, I am not only referring solely to school and the ongoings there, but the actual process of learning and the acquisition of knowledge. This process of learning begins long before the child ever steps-foot into an institution of “learning”.

Therefore, the parents role is pivotal in nurturing the development of a child’s aptitude toward learning at the most early stages of its growth. That being said, what is it that we actually want our children to learn? Obviously, we would like our children to eventually become professionals in a particular field. But during the early stages, what do we want our children to develop most?

I am not a trained therapist but I can think of one area which is connected to all of the points of development (emotional, language and cognitive, etc.) discussed in Early childhood Education (ECE), a child’s character. A child’s character is a key-indicator and provides distinctive qualities which may indicate their level of development. These qualities may also be used to distinguish between strong or weak progressions. Likewise, in adulthood we use character to identify and distinguish an individual or groups from one another.

Character development is a fundamental part our Islamic education and a primary interest in Muslim family’s agenda for educating their children. It is also a classic debate of the Western world, this can be seen in Aristotle’s Nichomacean Ethics and Socrates’ Meno (Nucci, 1989). Later John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher, was an advocate of formal education as means to character development.

However, during the twentieth century American education has redirected its position on character development as a primary focus (W. Huitt, 2004). Instead its goals focus primarily on developing skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening according to a survey by Phi Delta Kappa (Spears, 1973). While, character development ranked third behind grammatical skills and identity development. The survey also identified ‘good character’ in terms of ‘a moral and ethical sense of values, goals and processes of a free society’, which seem fine as general statement in the English language however, these terms take on a different meaning when colored by American culture and politics.

So what alternatives do we have? Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir weigh in on this topic saying,

“We must raise our children outside the modern schools that are designed to make them no more than functional literates. We absolutely, must remove our children from state schools and design, build, and support life-enhancing places of learning.” (Agenda to Change Our Condition)

Given the survey data this may be the right thing to do, I for one have always been an advocate of home schooling after all some of the Western worlds greatest thinkers were homeschooled. Persons like, Andrew Carnegie, Charlie Chaplin, Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Florence Nightingale, Woodrow Wilson and the Wright brothers as mentioned in Chris Jeub’s article, Academic Reasons, featured on Christian Conservative resource, where he also concludes:

“But education is more than individual academic courses — more than teaching what the teacher knows or training students in a particular skill. It is actually passing on a worldview.”

Jeub’s article suggests – a bit more bluntly – what I explained earlier in this article. So what we must ask ourselves is can we trust secular public schools and state run Universities to assist in the shaping of our children’s worldview? Furthermore, is it possible to achieve a satisfying education for our children through the public school system if we are ultimately at ideological odds with the primary focus of education? In addition, can we make ends meet? Or our we destined to loose our children’s worldview to the system, for lack of a better phrase?

As parents we are responsible for the outcome of our children’s worldview as well as the architects of their implementation of Islam. One thing I consider when I hear or see radical Muslims on the front page of the daily news with a headline referencing some foiled “terror-plot” is, how do their parents feel? Are their parents Muslims and where did the plotters receive their Islamic education? What I am getting at is, who is responsible for their worldview which support anti-Islamic principles? Also, it is important to understand when they received their Islamic education and most importantly the authenticity of it.

Conversely, we must address the religious Right, who by and large support war efforts that employ tactics of preemptive seizure. A tactic that mirrors the brutal strategies implemented by Tiberius Julius Alexander and Yohanan ben Levi during the first Jewish-Roman War. How can we justify efforts to end war that result in three times as many innocent deaths than that which started war (IBC)? It is a backwards ideology and we must ask the same question, who is responsible for this worldview?

Recently, my wife requested a meeting with the principal of my eldest son’s elementary school. We feel that the school does not discuss ‘good character’ among the children as much as it should. My son attends one of Manhattan’s most notable schools for ‘gifted children’ therefore, a focus on intellectual development, cognitive skills and identity far exceed the normative functions of character building. Perhaps, the general consensus in American schools is that parents will provide enough reinforcement in character-building to satisfy this area of development, but if this is true, it is a seriously flawed conclusion.

In conclusion, I think that as Muslims we agree that belief is the beginning of character building. Our belief, coupled with sincerity will provide the platform for meaningful activity in the world. For example, when is it discussed with our children, during a regular school day, that lying or relaying fiction as means to an end is not OK? If this principle were a pillar in the agenda of a classroom’s society perhaps it would effect how these children treat the truth when they become men and women functioning in their chosen professions. However, this small item is rarely on a class agenda and occurs mostly as ‘on the spot training’ and not as an item in the lesson plan which eventually lead one to believe that lying is OK if I don’t get caught.

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§ 4 Responses to Character Building in American Schools

  • […] Teen Taunted Because of Name 12 06 2007 In my previous article Character Building in American Schools, I failed to mention – purposely – that my wife’s meeting with the principal was not to […]

  • Aaminah says:

    Asalaamu alaikum.

    I think you are right that many schools expect the parents to be the sole “character issues educator” of their children. But there is much to be said for how character is built in different areas of life and if the values the parents strive to teach at home are not valued and reinforced when the child is outside of the home it makes it harder. There is certain minimal morality and character that can and should be part of school: not cheating, not lying, not gossiping, not tattling, telling the truth, admitting mistakes, asking for help, defending the wronged – these are just some examples. These are things that a student can see applied in a practical manner within the classroom and the school and will go a long way to helping to support the values that their parents are also teaching them at home. We have to remember that each person our child deals with regularly and sustained (such as other students, teachers, principals etc) have a dramatic impact on the child. If we could all feel the level of responsibility that we have to those children in our care, if we cared as much about them as we do our own children, though in a slightly different way, we would naturally be teaching them good character. It’s when we don’t want to get into teaching character that we are most often inadvertedly teaching bad character!

  • Hakim says:

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum,

    “There is certain minimal morality and character that can and should be part of school: not cheating, not lying”

    On the way to taking my eldest son to school this morning I asked him,

    “Does your teacher ever discuss character with your class?”

    He innocently said,

    “No Baba, we don’t talk about characters much!”

    I corrected him saying,

    “No, I mean does she talk about good behavior, and lying, things like that? Does she explain that these are bad things”

    Again he innocently says,

    “No Baba, all she does is teach!”

    This points at this item from a different level all together. My son saw a discussion on lying and being kind as a completely different as teaching! This is what I mean by implementing teaching into the curriculum because then perhaps the children will grow up associating this practices with public conduct and society.

  • […] among the underserved communities of the United States, as you may have read in articles like Character Building in American Schools, therefore I am going to make it a point – on this blog – to become a resource for people […]

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