Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Main goal of education - Competence or Character?

For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”[....] 


  1. I tell my children that I expect them to receive honours in mentschlichkeit. Honours in academics is merely a bonus. Most of all, I value character and they know it.

    My daughter is a middle of the road student in her competitive Yeshiva High School. While not the biggest scholar, she has the most seichel. While not trying to be the "coolest", the girls still gravitate toward her.

    The reason, I firmly believe, is she is true to herself, a true follower of "dover emes bilvavo". She does not try to be someone she is not, isn't trying to impress the boys or the other girls. She is about emes, and people get that, and even if they are not overtly aware of it, they are attracted to it.

    As for my son, Baruch Hashem he is a male and I still have what to do!

    I think, thank God, he's starting to catch on.

  2. I am a strong believer in the centrality of middos. BUT... Is that a school's central job?

    OT1H, parents aren't supposed to be outsourcing that most central aspect of chinukh. Paying teachers to relay material is one thing, but shouldn't values primarily come from the home?

    OTOH, if I really believed that, my children would have been tutored. Much of school is learning how to work within a peer group. How do accomodate someone weaker than you, or how to compensate for when the teacher can't spend the whole class's time on something you didn't get, how to share, how to work with a team, when cliquiness becomes a middah ra'ah, how to be in a group without using LH as a bond, etc... There are character issues that can't be taught in a family setting, simply because that kind of dynamic can't be set up.

    (And I say that as a father who had 6 children in their teens, including triplets, at once [among other children who weren't teens then]. You still don't get that friendship dynamic.)

  3. Micha,
    But is it not true that schools are a "modern" invention? Only since Rabban Gamliel?

    I agree with you for the most part.

  4. Older than that, Shim'on ben Shetach (Y-mi Kesuvos 8:11 50b; TB Qiddushin 66a) who lived 130-40 BCE, during the reign of the Hasmonian king, Alexander Yannai, and over a century before the end of the 2nd Beis haMiqdash.

    RMJ, I don't know what agreeing with me means; I voiced my internal conflict. I think that parents can't expect schools to replace their central role as parents -- to produce ehrlicher adults. However, I also am not a fan of home schooling or of computerized individualized instruction because of the central role of peer-group interaction in becoming that person.

  5. Recipients and PublicitySeptember 15, 2011 at 2:04 AM


  6. It is a good article on the issue that gives all parents grey hairs-how to teach children to succeed in life. It might be a good idea to bring back the horatio alger series of "luck and pluck" and membership in the boy scouts or similiar organisations that reward the development of character that gets you through when the going gets tough. It may be,as a side point ,that the artscroll hagiographies have the effect of removing any tale of reaction to failure from the life history of great people. Children don't see that as a critical part of life.


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