Every once in awhile, it’s nice to be reaffirmed. As I attended the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS) Heads Conference in Phoenix last week, I listened and nodded to the remarks of Dr. Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist who also serves on the faculty of the Education Department at Harvard University and the Kennedy School of Government. Weissbourd is a co-director of the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard that produced the “Turning the Tide” report last year which called for a new approach to college admissions.
Weissbourd shared a voluminous amount of data from studies he and his Harvard colleagues have done on the ethical development of American high school students. While his findings were disappointing, they were, unfortunately, not surprising: American schools, which were started in the 19th century to teach ethical behavior, have come to focus on academic content almost exclusively. In the process, intentionally or inadvertently, we have taught our students and children that, as Weissbourd puts it, “performance character is more important than ethical character.” In study after study, American teens describe what they see as the mixed messages sent by the adults in their lives: while we parents (and some educators) talk about the importance of morality, at the end of the day what we’re really concerned about are their academic and extracurricular accomplishments. As a result, as author William Deresiewicz noted in his 2014 Atlantic article, “The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life,” and book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, we are producing young women and men who are dutiful, compliant, and proficient, but lacking in moral character and intrinsic motivation.
The “Turning The Tide” report calls for a new approach to college admissions that de-emphasizes the importance of taking a great number of AP, or equally challenging, courses in high school and instead places an emphasis on students participating in sustained, meaningful work in their community and serving others. (You may remember that I have written about this report before.) This paper calls for a major change in the way that college admissions officers assess applicants and is much more in line with what Bosque School has been saying for over 20 years. Yes, colleges want students who are academically prepared, but just as importantly, they want high school graduates who have shown a devotion to their communities and have experience with a diverse and inclusive group of people.
After his talk, I spoke with Professor Weissbourd about Bosque School and our commitment to scholarship, community, and integrity; he seemed impressed and heartened by the work we are doing. I explained that at Bosque, we believe that all of these values are equally important, and we devote ourselves to producing graduates who are excellent students and “lifelong learners with the highest character values,” as it says in our mission statement. He and I are going to continue our discussion, and I look forward to learning more.
I continued to think about Professor Weissbourd’s comments as I listened to a podcast from an American Public Media show, “On Being” with Krista Tippett. This weekly show looks at the intersection of politics, spirituality, religion, and culture in American society. In this re-broadcasted episode, Tippett interviewed Vincent Harding, Jr., a scholar of American society and religion who also marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s. Harding remembered Dr. King speaking of “The 3 C’s—courage, compassion, and creativity.” He believed that in periods of great upheaval, people need moral courage, compassion toward those with whom they agree as well as disagree, and spiritual creativity.
As the head of a school committed to teaching “the head” and “the heart” of our students, I feel deeply fortunate. Again and again, we hear from Bosque alumni that one of the differentiating elements of their alma mater is a deeply-held commitment to its community; former Bobcats carry this philosophy into their work on college campuses and beyond, and we are so proud of our graduates. Nevertheless, as parents and as educators, we should regularly ask ourselves how we’re doing in teaching our children to be courageous, compassionate, and creative in all aspects of their lives. More than ever, our world needs young women and men who are intellectually-minded, active members of their community who possess integrity.