Character Before Career

In David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Brooks makes a helpful distinction between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are those qualities that help us achieve worldly success – they make us wealthier, more powerful, and more famous. The eulogy virtues, by contrast, are the qualities that people who know us well talk about at our funerals. Such qualities typically bear little resemblance to the resume virtues, but they tend to correlate strongly with happiness. Being loving, humble, and self-denying does not guarantee worldly success, but having such qualities does typically make one a good leader, parent, spouse or friend. In short, those who possess the resume virtues may succeed at doing a lot, but those who possess the eulogy virtues succeed at living life well.

The world of education, despite its intense focus on career preparation, has not been entirely deaf to concerns that students receive instruction in character. Lacking a consistent and coherent conception of the good life, however, public schools and most private schools have struggled to put together plans that go beyond exposing students to vague concepts like respect, grit, and citizenship, concepts that they can put on posters in the hallways and discuss without provoking too much debate about the meaning of life. When asked questions like “Are there limits to what or whom we should respect?” or “To what end should I exercise my grit?” or “Does being a good citizen require obeying or disobeying an unjust law?” most schools have little they can say because they are committed to not espousing any particular coherent conception of the good life for human beings.

Real life requires a deeper wisdom than can be found on billboards and inspirational posters, and neutrality with respect to the meaning of life, even if possible, does nothing to help students decide how to live. Our students need guidance on what they should do when their boss asks them to lie or cheat to benefit the business. They need to know what to do when tempted by greed or lust or envy. They need to know how to cultivate the virtues needed to raise children, care for sick friends and family members, and lead organizations well.

At the Stony Brook School, we have been engaging in character formation for ninety-four years. Our school motto, established even before the founding of the school – “Character Before Career” – speaks our rich heritage of prioritizing the who over the what, of cultivating the eulogy virtues alongside and sometimes at the expense of the resume virtues. We have been making good on our motto for generations because we have a clear conception of what a life well-lived looks like and because we hire teachers and coaches and dorm parents who live life well.

Understanding Character

One’s character is constituted by one’s virtues and vices. Virtues are habits of the heart, mind, body, and spirit that dispose one to love and pursue what is ultimately good, true, and beautiful. Vices are habits of the heart that dispose us to love lesser or false goods, to believe what is deceptive and untrue, to be captivated by ugliness and perpetuate it through the abuse of our creative gifts. Increased knowledge and skill without a corresponding cultivation of virtue equips students to do great evils than they could do had they never received an education. Drawing from St. Augustine, David Brooks puts it this way: “We don’t become better because we acquire new information. We become better because we acquire better loves. We don’t become what we know. Education is a process of love formation. When you go to a school, it should offer you new things to love.”  

Cursor_and_Character_at_SBS_August_2015At The Stony Brook School, educating the heart is at the center of what we do. In fact, rightly ordered love is at the top of the list of the virtues we aim to instill. Our list, drawn from the rich Christian tradition of reflection upon the virtues, includes the theological virtues love, hope, and faith as well as the intellectual virtue, wisdom, and the moral virtues, justice, courage, and temperance. This list is by no means exhaustive, but most other virtues we affirm are connected to one or more of those virtues. For example, we prize patience, which is a form of temperance. We affirm the goodness of humility, which comes from a right knowledge of ourselves in relation to God (faith and wisdom), a right concern for others (love), and a moderation of self-love (temperance).

Cursor_and_Character_at_SBS_August_2015While pursuing the virtues, it is helpful to be aware of the internal temptations that will arise within us as we try to live life well. The Christian tradition has identified seven vices, all rooted ultimately in pride, that keep us from God and from all that is ultimately good, true, and beautiful. Those vices are vainglory, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. The tradition has sometimes called these the seven deadly sins. What that means is that these habits of thought, feeling, and action can become so deeply rooted in our hearts that we cannot recognize or want what is good anymore. They kill us from the inside.

Instilling the Virtues

Good character does not come easily. Internal and external pressures wage war on character formation constantly. Those who are equipped at a young age to combat those pressures stand the best chance of living successful human lives. Philosophers and theologians have identified at least four ways character is formed, and we employ all four at The Stony Brook School.

The first is through stories of exemplars. If students are going to live virtuous lives, they need to be captivated by stories of people who lived life well, who heroically conquered temptations and did what was right even when it was unpopular or dangerous or inconvenient. 

The second is through intentional discipleship by exemplary adults who guide students in habit-forming practices. We all know this is true in other areas of life. If one wants to grow in athletic skill, one must practice and practice and practice. The same goes for the arts, reading, writing, and reasoning. Just as one becomes a better cellist by practicing playing the cello the right way under the guidance of an expert cellist, one becomes a wiser, more courageous, and more temperate person under the guidance of a virtuous mentor. And just as practicing foul shots in the practice gym is a relatively low-risk endeavor that prepares one for sinking the game-winning free throw in front of a hostile crowd, so practicing courage by speaking up for what is right in the classroom prepares one to speak truth to a power as an adult.

If stories move the heart, and habit-forming practices move the body, education about virtues and vices, the third way character is formed, moves the mind to love the true, the good, and the beautiful. Reading the Scriptures, or Dante, or Aquinas, or Dostoevsky, or C.S. Lewis on the nature of the virtues and the vices can help one see one’s character flaws more clearly. If one has a word for vainglory, for example, one can more easily recognize it in oneself and in others, and if one understands the many manifestations of sloth, one can see it not only in laziness but also in becoming really busy doing everything but what one is supposed to be doing. At The Stony Brook School, we aim to impart a robust moral vocabulary to our students and to expose them to literature and sermons that describe and analyze the character traits they should strive to acquire and those they should aim to starve.

Finally, the fourth way character is formed is by God’s grace. As Christians, we know that this is not something we can give to our students directly. We hope to be God’s means of grace, and we aim to exemplify lives that have been transformed by grace, but God’s grace is not ours to offer. It is a free gift that can only come from God. Christian theologians have identified faith, hope, and love as gifts of God that are not acquired through stories of exemplars or habit-forming practices or through study. The theological virtues, the virtues that truly transform lives, come to us through the sacrifice of Christ. Our best efforts as a school can help students to live happier, healthier, and more virtuous lives, but lasting happiness, true health, and perfect virtue only come through a saving relationship with the source of truth, beauty, and goodness Himself.

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