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How We Can Revitalize Politics by Teaching Character

Ronald Reagan was known for the jar of jellybeans he kept on his desk in the oval office, offering them to dignitaries and other White House visitors.

“You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans,” he would say, reading importance into whether a person would grab a handful or carefully select a favorite color.

Politicians often speak of the importance of character. Campaign speeches, testimonials, and press releases are full of references to a candidate’s moral stature.

The term is used to convey, above all else, that a person with the right character is the right person to be elected. And conversely, the character flaws of one’s opponent are sure to be brought up at every opportunity.

One would think this would ensure that only the most upstanding individuals would be elected to public office. But over the last several years of Gallup polls, the honesty and ethical standards of members of Congress have consistently been rated among the lowest of various professions. Why is this and what can be done to reverse this trend?

Our society has a long history of encouraging just the opposite.

The importance of getting ahead, winning, and striving at all costs to stand above one’s peers is hammered into us from an early age.
The importance of getting ahead, winning, and striving at all costs to stand above one’s peers is hammered into us from an early age. This is reinforced in school, in athletics, in one’s career, and yes, in politics.

Frank Underwood in House of Cards reaches the presidency not because of his character, but because he lacks this trait. Dare I mention real national leaders who have done the same?

But there is hope.

There is a trend in education to teach children, from the earliest grades, the importance of character and how to do what is right. This is not a new concept, but a throwback to the days when instilling right from wrong was a cornerstone of the upbringing of our children.

Educational theories and practices based on social and emotional learning (SEL) bring back the idea that academic success is rooted in teaching the ability to make responsible decisions.

For years, education reform efforts have focused on setting national standards in academics in order to reduce disparities in mathematics and language arts proficiency.

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education since 2009, has devoted his tenure to holding educators accountable for academic standards, through programs such as Race To The Top, No Child Left Behind, and Common Core. However, this emphasis on meeting standards and its inherent need for assessment put pressure on educators to “teach to the test.” Something had to give — citizenship.

A resurgence in SEL is advanced by organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. CASEL’s mission is to ensure that students from preschool through high school become “knowledgeable, responsible, caring and contributing members of society.”

By advancing curriculum that fosters this goal, and sponsoring research and promoting acceptance of the underlying principles into public education, CASEL and similar groups hope to make character development as important as academics in child development and learning.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum, was originally published in 1989 and is now in its fifteenth edition. Fulghum’s tenets include the need to:

  • Share
  • Play nicely
  • Cooperate
  • Speak with respect
  • Say please, thank you, and sorry

All simple things, really. But they are clearly lacking today in political dialogue and public discourse.

Even Secretary Duncan has admitted a troubling trend of too much focus on testing.

,” Duncan said recently in announcing a policy change to relax emphasis on testing.

Time will tell whether we will see new trends in educational reform focused not on academic standards, but rather on the social skills and character traits which define how we as individuals contribute to society.

The need is clear to develop a new generation of socially and emotionally adept leaders, and restore character and integrity to those we elect as our leaders. More immediately, this Election Day, reward those who demonstrate strong character traits with your vote. Choose your jellybeans with care.