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Memphis Daily News
Focus on Character
September 9, 2013
By Dr. Mary C. McDonald

In an address to the nation during his presidency Theodore Roosevelt said, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of individuals, and of a nation.”

His statement holds true today in spite of what seems to be a nation tormented in its soul by an erosion of character traits we see and experience every day. At a time when there appears to be a wave of negative role models being held up as examples for our youths, there is also a debate in education circles about educating for character development, and the merits of assigning a value to the students’ progress in acquiring good character traits. The function of education is information and formation. Knowledge plus character, that’s the goal of education. Forming good, productive citizens and strong moral decision makers who will, in the future, decide the quality of life for all of us is a worthy goal for education. So what’s the debate?

Assigning a letter grade to students’ progress in acquiring such traits as honesty, integrity, responsibility, respect, or citizenship is not a trend by school reformers. It is a sound practice resurrected from past success in doing just that. Social – emotional learning strategies have been around for a long time, and they came with grades that provided students with indicators that point to their progress in self-awareness and personal growth. Decades ago this was the practice of public, private, and parochial schools across the nation. I remember the list of character traits we learned and practiced when I was in school. I don’t remember the grades I earned in those areas; I just remember the emphasis placed on those traits.

Grades are not a judgment of who you are, but rather where you are at a certain point in time. Students often question their use of some subjects when they get to “the real world.” You may not have an everyday use for geometry, but you will always be able to use integrity. So why not track the development of good character traits in students, traits that are needed to strengthen our nation, so that students become aware of their importance. Grades do not reduce the potential of a student to a set of measurements, but rather, encourage a desire to strive for excellence, and a higher standard of behavior, when used to motivate. It is true that, as sociologist William Cameron said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” However, providing our young people with a set of ideals, and standards of personal excellence that contribute to the collective good, is a means to an end that will empower our youths to strive to be the best version of themselves that they can be. Don’t waste the students’ time debating the grading issue, just do it. We need character education now more than ever.

Contact Dr. Mary C. McDonald, a national education consultant, at 574-2956 or visit
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