The philosophy of the school room in one generation will become the philosophy of the government in the next. ―Abraham Lincoln
Our forefathers established a nation devoted to liberty and equality, symbolized by a commitment of "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor" in signing the Declaration of Independence, while making it clear that character development is essential for self-governing people.
They fought a revolutionary war to secure it. Lincoln later reminded us in the bloodshed at Gettysburg that "we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
Americans went on to fight two world wars to reaffirm our founding principles of liberty and equality, not just for ourselves, but to model them for the world. And as President Theodore Roosevelt reaffirmed, "To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society."
But for three generations now, we have shifted the prime value of education from character development to academic achievement, and as Lincoln predicted, achievement, not character is now primarily valued in our government, institutions and culture. This has had a damaging effect on our founding principles; liberty is perceived as a personal right instead of a pass-it-on responsibility, and the primary value of academic achievement is discriminatory, particularly against those of African or Hispanic heritage.
For a nation that is increasingly becoming a majority of minorities, this system will not unite it or allow it to become one nation experiencing the power of its founding principles. A recent Washington Post headline: Majority of U.S. students are in poverty.
After establishing a network of Hyde private and public schools over a 49-year period, and watching Hyde graduates (from wealthy to very disadvantaged areas) succeed in college and life, here is what I learned our forefathers -- all highly literate individuals -- expected of education:
The primary value of American education is the student's character development.
Character not only levels the educational playing field for all students, but enables schools to effectively challenge and support each student in a way that inspires trust, motivation and confidence, qualities that not only empower the student, but unify the student body as a team.
This rigorous program emphasizing attitude and effort instills qualities like courage, integrity, concern, curiosity, leadership, respect and responsibility, with assessments based on one's best. The expectation is self-discovery, citizenship and a desire to learn.
All this creates a far better learning culture and community. The community will collectively do its best academic work, reaffirming the wisdom of Horace Mann -- considered the founder of our public school system -- who said, given a year to teach spelling, he'd spend the first nine months on motivation.
Deep in their hearts, character is the value Americans most respect. A Harvard study of 10,000 students found roughly 80 percent felt their parent's primary concern was their achievement and happiness, but 96 percent of their parents said their primary concern was their children's caring for others and character. This supports my own experience with parents over my 63-year teaching career; their deepest belief is in character, but they focus on their children's achievement for fear they will lose out in the competition.
If we as a nation make character the primary value of our schools, then following Lincoln's wisdom, imagine the next generation.
Character gives American children a new stature and unity that would end such things as achievement gaps, cheating, bullying and even school shootings. Schools would become true learning centers, because students would trust and experience schools as sanctuaries devoted primarily to their growth, not factories churning out academically proficient workers.
Americans' confidence in their institutions and leaders, with some exceptions, is presently at low levels; for example, a Gallup Poll reported only 7 percent of Americans trust Congress "quite a bit" or more. We know in our hearts if we had a generation devoted to character, our leadership, institutions and our confidence in them would be transformed.
Perhaps the biggest change would be in our society. We would revitalize our founding principles. Liberty would move from "me" centered to more of a pass-it-on responsibility. Equality would respect the "give me your tired, your poor" attitude within America, and thus simply accept and honor any individual who meets the challenge of developing the American character.
Lincoln clearly gave us the choice: do we want a nation built on academic achievement or character? I have no doubt what he and our founding fathers would choose.
NEXT: How to have the best of both worlds.