Character Education Shouldn’t Be “Mental Conditioning For The Poor”

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I’m going to post two thought-provoking pieces today on the subject of “non-cognitive skills.” The first is by Mike Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, who writes in the Christian Science Monitor:

“There is an emerging opinion about poverty and the achievement gap that holds that America can boost the academic success of poor people through psychological and educational interventions that will help them develop the qualities of personality or character needed to overcome their circumstances—qualities like perseverance, self control, and belief in one’s ability.

No doubt these are powerful attributes, and they contribute mightily to a successful life, regardless of where you sit on the socioeconomic ladder. But policymakers need to be careful not assume that character education is the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty. My worry is that we will embrace programs that are essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.

It is difficult for enrichment programs alone to lead to educational mobility. Children from poor communities need social policy that involves schools and enrichment programs, but also need programs to address the conditions that devastate students’ lives: poor nutrition and healthcare, inadequate housing, parental unemployment, violent streets, and a dysfunctional immigration system. When we ignore these broader conditions, we turn an ungenerous scrutiny on the children themselves.

Given the political tenor of our time, we can easily fall into the trap of blaming the poor for their circumstances – attributing them to character deficiencies and championing character development as the way out of their problems. There’s as much variability among the poor as in any group, and we have to keep that fact squarely in our sights, for we tend toward one-dimensional generalities about poor people’s character and motivation.” (Read more here.)

Rose is exactly right about this—character-building programs are all well and good, but we also need to address the deeper problems that make poor children’s lives unnecessarily and almost impossibly difficult.

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5 Responses to “Character Education Shouldn’t Be “Mental Conditioning For The Poor””

  1. So true. Let’s fix the system, not the person.

    • Don Davis says:

      Many of these efforts are not “fixing” the person, but helping to support them against systemic inequalities and hegemonic social narratives.

  2. Don Davis says:

    Wow. This is so very true. I’m an educator and researcher working to support students by building identity trajectories. However, I also come from less affluent circumstances and understand a bit about simply not being able to afford education (especially more prestigious opportunities).

    This is something that is very hard to explain and make understandable to others – the idea that there is no backup or wiggle room. I’ve heard people recommend taking acceptance to more prestigious universities and just rough it for a few years. The thought is to take a hit in earnings now and earn more later. How? For people who already have no money for car repairs and health insurance, no one to turn to in an emergency, no one to cosign a loan – how? What seems so doable to some – requires access to ‘backup funds’ that many of us just don’t have.

  3. I think he is ignoring or misunderstanding much of the research about resilience. Most writers and researchers who are exploring the role of noncognitive skills are not arguing that there is a deficit in disadvantaged people’s characters, not are they are arguing that we should not fix the structural reasons for poverty. The science of resilience suggests that it is through adversity that incredibly valuable character strengths and habits can be developed. Yet many low-income kids need support in learning the coping skills necessary to deal with trauma and learn from it. And, as Paul Tough has pointed out, many privileged kids never face face little if any adversity in the first place, and thus don’t cultivate the sort of coping skills that can help develop these character traits.

  4. Hifi says:

    It’s a moot issue as there is no evidence that character education programs in public schools are either needed or effective. (And Jessica, Paul Tough has put forward not one shred of evidence that resilience can be taught). To the contrary, October 2010, a federal study*, the largest and most thorough ever conducted, found that school-wide Character Education programs produce exactly ZERO improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

    It’s no surprise. Besides the fact that there is no theoretical basis for character education, just take a look at the lists of values and goals of the dozens of competing CE offerings. The lack of agreement between the lists is one of the most damning aspects of character education! It also becomes obvious that the majority of the values follow a conservative agenda, concerned with conformity, submitting to authority, not making a fuss…

    One thing all these programs do agree on is what values are NOT included on their lists of core values. Not found, even though they are fundamental to the history and success of our nation are such noted values as independence, calculated risk, ingenuity, curiosity, critical thinking, skepticism, and even moderation. “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” the famous saying by Ms. Frizzle on the much celebrated TV show, The Magic School Bus, embodies values that would be antithetical to those found in today’s character education.

    *”Efficacy of Schoolwide Programs to Promote Social and Character Development and Reduce Problem Behavior in Elementary School Children” The Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. October 2010.

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