What our children learn is not the same and not as important as who they become

April 16, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

THERE IS an anxiety among parents these days to manage their children's schooling in such a way as to ensure that they receive a "good education."

Living in the right school district, choosing the right pre-school, shopping for the right private school, choosing advanced placement courses, signing up for SAT cram sessions. We do all these things and more.

It is a noble ambition -- one with which few of our parents bothered. But while we are focused on getting our children a "good education," we may neglect to teach them how to be good.

We want our child to get a good job, and that is an honorable goal. But we may have failed to do the job of making them good. Good citizens, good people.

"I don't denounce this parental ambition, this search for the right educational trajectory, said Harvard social psychiatrist Robert Coles, speaking at Baltimore's College of Notre Dame as part of the school's centennial lecture series.

"But education for what?" he asked.

There is no relationship, he said, between how much children know and how they behave. We need only look at the example of the Naval Academy to know he is right. One of the most rigorous academic institutions in the country has been brought low with cheating, auto theft, drug use and sexual harassment scandals.

Dr. Coles has spent 30 years sitting cross-legged on the floor, listening to children from all parts of the world. He has recorded their fears and feelings, their interior lives, in the rich and empathetic language of a poet.

He has worked with normal children in abnormal circumstances -- children of desegregation, children of migrant workers, children dying of diseases mysterious to them. But instead of focusing on some damaged part of these children, he looks for what makes them persevere. He has found tremendous courage, unfathomed spirituality and a hunger for moral guidance.

Dr. Coles' admonition that parents provide moral teaching presents a special challenge to the children of the '60s trying to be parents in the '90s.

Many of us felt oppressed and offended by our parents' postwar values. Some of those values were as uniform and uninspired as the tract houses into which so many of us were born. Others were bitter, harsh and prejudiced.

And so we junked them. All.

Now we find ourselves raising children in the age of multiculturalism, where nothing is good or bad, it is simply different.

And we are appalled at the selfish, unaccountable, amoral children we are loosing on the world as a result. Children who plagiarize from their computer encyclopedias or children who gun down tourists for their traveler's checks. It seems only a matter of degree.

A volunteer teacher in a poor Boston elementary school, Dr. Coles tells the story of how he shouted in rage at fourth-graders after weeks of their disruption, rudeness and inattention.

He was angry not at the children, he said, but at himself for allowing them to behave in that way for so long.

"I returned to the classroom with a sense of my own moral authority. I needed it. And so did they."

Moral education, Dr. Coles might argue, begins with the sound of our own voices raised in moral outrage.

After a lifetime of listening to the children we routinely tune out, Dr. Coles has concluded that childhood is connected not just to the drama of family life, but to the wider world. To race, class, the neighborhood, the region, ethnic traditions, religious heritage. Indeed, to the events of history. The Bomb. The civil rights movement. The Vietnam War. The Challenger explosion.

Observed in all this complexity, childhood takes on so much depth and context that Dr. Coles' demand for moral education makes absolute sense.

And that moral education need take place not just in kitchens and in Sunday school classrooms, but in schools. Educators do not have to teach from the Bible to accomplish this. Literature, too, contains the stories of people struggling to live a compassionate life, a moral life.

The moral life of my son's middle school is often more challenging than the academic one, and my friends and I have despaired. When will they read "Evangeline" and write long research papers? Does everything have to be back talk and bad humor?

I had reduced my expectations for these years and told my friends that my son can read the classics later. I just want him to leave middle school a decent person.

I felt ashamed of myself, of my uninspired ambition for him, until Dr. Coles comforted me with Ralph Waldo Emerson's words of 150 years ago:

"Character is higher than intellect."

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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