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Character and the Future

By  Gary Marx Thursday, 18 December 2014 10:47

Gary Marx is president of the Center for Public Outreach in Vienna, Virginia, USA.  He served for nearly 20 years as a senior executive for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).  His latest book, Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future, is published by Education Week Press.  Marx has done energizing presentations on six continents. 

 

Visit his website and find out about his book here

 

"Most of us are interpreters.  We interpret our organization to society at the same time we interpret society for our organization.  At least, we should.  The whole idea completes an important circle and helps us stay in touch.

 

Too often, we are blinded by narrowness, steadfast allegiance to the status quo, and a commitment to fend off any new idea.  When that happens, we become entrenched.  We end up with such a laser focus on one point of view or on our specialty that we can’t see the big picture.  We lose perspective and have a hard time seeing things in context. If we hope to have a future, we need people who shamelessly seize the higher ground.  Unless we are determined to stay in touch, we might just find ourselves out of touch with our families, our communities, our society, and even humanity itself.

 

I often ask people to get involved in a process that I call reputation analysis.  The first question is, “What words would people generally use to describe us as individuals or as an organization?  What are we known for?”  Then, the follow-up question: “What words would we like to have them use?  What would we like to be known for?”  Noting the gap, we try to fill it. 

 

Of course, filling a reputation gap takes more than rhetoric.  Flashy claims about who we are can be captivating for a moment.  However, it is our behavior and what drives us that will finally help those around us truly understand who we are.  Aristotle made clear that people tend to judge us based on our competence (how well we do our jobs), our good character (what truly motivates us), and our good will (how we treat others). 

 

If we want to be known for fairness, good judgment, honesty, creativity, and perseverance, then we need to earn the privilege.  Simply claiming the description isn’t enough.  As we teach about character using precept and example, we might consider provocative questions.  One of those questions for our students and our communities could be, “What was it that clothed people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Malala Yousafzai with moral authority? 

 

Actor and global citizen Peter Ustinov once observed that the sea has no boundaries.  It laps on every shore.  The same is true for character education. 

 

In my book, Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future, I’ve devoted chapters to each of nearly two dozen forces that have profound implications for everyone, everywhere.  In fact, broad societal trends are common ground.  In one way or another, they affect all of us. I write and speak about the flow of generations, diversity, aging, technology, identity and privacy, the economy, jobs and careers, energy, environmental and planetary security, sustainability, international/global issues, personalization, the release of ingenuity, polarization, authority, ethics, continuous improvement, poverty, scarcity vs. abundance, personal meaning and work-life balance, and the depth, breadth, and purposes of education. I then ask of these trends,“What are their implications for character education?”  Character is also universal and with it, we have a legitimate chance for an even brighter tomorrow - and without it, all bets are off.

 

When the Great Recession hit and bubbles burst, we found, to our dismay, that some people were actually profiting from what was sure to bring financial hard times to legions of hard-working, thoughtful, and trusting people.  The result?  Even more people want those who work in government, business, civil society organizations, or other institutions to actually earn their trust.  Many try and fail because, when the chips are down, they don’t have the strength of character to do the right thing.

 

Albert Schweitzer said, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”  Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, put it this way: “Without moral courage, our brightest virtues rust from lack of use. With it, we build piece by piece a more ethical world.”

 

What are some of the challenges we face that reflect our character?  Of course, there are those who believe that power equates to personal privilege, sometimes we reject the truth if it doesn’t support our case and blindside ourselves,  other problems include double standards and disinformation, a deliberate misinterpretation of information.

 

Avis Glaze, president of Edu-quest International in Canada, is an esteemed colleague who served on Futures Council 21, a distinguished international group of 26 people who advised us on our Twenty-One Trends book project.  A noted authority on character education, she observes, “If we want a society in which citizens care about one another—in which qualities such as honesty, integrity, fairness, courage, and optimism are pervasive and violence of any kind is discouraged—we have no choice but to nurture these values in our homes, in our schools, and in our communities.”  Her challenge is reinforced by Character Counts, whose president, Michael Josephson, points to “Six Pillars of Character:  trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.”

 

Character Scotland is devoted not only to building character.  It is also helping us discover the seeds of character that are within each of us and nurture them as they grow.  Our individual and collective futures depend on people of character.  Character and civic education are surely among our most urgent needs, wherever we are on the planet.  Now, in this fast-changing 24/7/365 world, let’s work together to create an even greater demand for education that leads to even more civil societies.  That should be part of our foundation as together we shape what we hope will be an even more promising future." 

 

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