Measuring moral success

If students and professionals were measured by their character, the world would be a different place.

Cassandra Sundaram

What if our success as students was measured less by grades and more by character? Would we be more successful? A recent article in the New York Times Magazine highlighted two schools whose administrations sought to enhance their curriculums with the application and building of character qualities.

David Levin, co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program network of charter schools in New York City, noticed that of the alumni of his schools, the students most likely to succeed and graduate from college “were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically âĦ they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence.”

Intrigued by this trend, Levin implemented “character report cards” in his schools; students are regularly evaluated on character qualities like grit and self-control with indicator statements such as “Is polite to adults and peers,” and “Keeps temper in check.”

Because the enrollment of KIPP schools is largely made up of low-income and/or underprivileged students, administrators realized the importance of teaching a curriculum that would not only provide academic success, but personal fulfillment as well. The emphasis on building character at a KIPP school does not quite hold the same connotation as parents preaching to their children that walking five miles barefoot in the snow to and from school made them better people; in LevinâÄôs schools, the focus and commitment to molding successful, socially conscious and adaptable human beings is much more tangible. The dean of students at KIPP Infinity middle school spoke in the article about the value of studentsâÄô persistence and tenacity in dealing with tough backgrounds: “The kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: âÄòI can rise above this situation. IâÄôm OK. Tomorrow is a new day.âÄô” These studentsâÄô ability to rebound from difficult circumstances may be what sets them apart as future professionals.

Riverdale Country School, another college preparatory school in New York City, also recognizes the important role character plays in generating happy and healthy individuals. But at Riverdale, the environment students live in is a far cry from the backgrounds of many KIPP students âÄî tuition at this private school costs $38,500 a year.

Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the school, didnâÄôt feel comfortable handing out character report cards. As he mentioned to the author, he wants character to be valued as an inherent quality, not an achievement: “With my schoolâÄôs specific population, at least, as soon as you set up something like a report card, youâÄôre going to have a bunch of people doing test prep for it. I donâÄôt want to come up with a metric around character that could then be gamed.”

Instead, the school has a program in place that encourages kids to be respectful and empathetic toward classmates. Children Aware of Riverdale Ethics (CARE) stresses the importance of kids helping one another and being actively aware of othersâÄô feelings.

Unfortunately, at schools like Riverdale, older students may not view these character traits particularly important or necessary to get into college, which is largely their immediate goal, and one that is highly attainable by the vast majority of students. Kids at KIPP will do whatever they can to achieve dreams of going to college, and if their teachers say that developing these character qualities will help get them where they want to go, why wouldnâÄôt they work hard to foster them?

For students at Riverdale, focusing on moral and performance character doesnâÄôt seem like a priority if success is always imminent âÄî if they have never not been successful. Randolph took note of this conflict of interest in the article: “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure âĦ And in most highly academic environments in the U.S., no one fails anything.”

When I read about these schools, I wondered what it would be like to have character “report cards” in college. Maybe IâÄôd see less people being rude to professors and classmates, or ironically spending exorbitant amounts of energy looking for ways to do the least amount of work possible.

I think our futures would benefit if some record were kept of our personal character advances. Too much pressure is placed on impressive GPAs and astounding academic success. While these aspects of a college career may lead you closer to a job interview, they will not make you a happy, well-adjusted, socially conscious human being.

Quantitative measures of achievement shed light on limited facets of a personâÄôs character. In todayâÄôs competitive college environment, it is easy for students to measure their worth by their GPA or their personal accomplishments instead of the kaleidoscope of what they are as a human being. Success and personal fulfillment cannot be bought through the currency of grades or academic awards alone.

I donâÄôt think our generation is morally bankrupt, as grandparents are often wont to believe; I think we are filled to the brim with character. But there is no incentive for displaying it âÄî in the academic or professional world. In a professional environment that rewards aggressiveness and shuns the sympathetic, itâÄôs no wonder that we find ourselves in an economic climate more frozen than a Minnesota winter. If Wall Street traders and investment bankers measured character in their performance reviews, maybe protesters wouldnâÄôt feel the need to camp out in lower Manhattan.