Jeff Haanen


A 2011 article in the New York Times Magazine highlighted Riverdale Country School in New York City, and their eccentric headmaster Dominic Randolph.

Riverdale is a “TT” (Top-tier) private school, whose tuition begins at $38,000 for prekindergarten, and commonly sends graduates to Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Yet when Randolph came to Riverdale, he immediately did away with AP classes, encouraged teachers to limit the amount of homework they assign, and cut many standardized tests for admissions. According to Randolph, the missing piece to the Riverdale curriculum was character.

His curiosity in character development led him to meet with Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and David Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, primarily for students in low-income urban areas. Levin had stressed character for years in the KIPP movement: walls are decorated with slogans like “Work hard,” “Be nice,” and “There are no shortcuts.” Seligman, on the other hand, had written an 800-page tome on “Character Strengths and Virtues.” Their conversations led to some interesting conclusions.

As Levin monitored the lives of KIPP alumni, he notices something interesting:

“the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.”

These traits, not IQ tests or grades on math exams, determined their success.

As Levin and Randolph continued to talk, they wondered about how to turn ideas about character into a feasible program. They were referred to Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, one of Seligman’s former graduate students. She analyzed characteristics that led to outstanding achievement—and very little had to do with IQ.

“People who accomplished great things,” says the article, “often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word ‘grit’.”

Randolph, at the prestigious Riverdale Country School, noticed that although many KIPP graduates had “grit” through challenging circumstances, the kids at Riverdale we often sheltered from failure, and thus from the most important learning opportunities.

“Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst [a Riverdale teacher] put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”

Randolph further explained, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Developing grit through failure – this is perhaps the most important character trait for many successful people. This is what must be taught if students will truly make a difference. How is this done? KIPP Infinity developed a “character report card”; Randolph worked with teachers on dual-instruction methods – teaching content alongside of character traits in every lesson. Each school developed a method for developing clearly defined character traits such as “grit.”

Here are my three questions. First, do most schools make any real attempt to teach character, despite district-wide values to teach things like honesty and integrity? By “real attempt” I mean, is there a scope, sequence and method of evaluation?

Second, are schools who are teaching character (Christian schools included) complacent with negative traits (don’t hit, don’t fight)? Are they also teaching positively those rare characteristics, like grit, that lead to truly successful lives?

Third, what is the basis of character itself? Is it “what makes me successful?” If so, why not choose other traits that will ultimately hurt other or at least leave others behind (competition, ambition, etc.)?

The question for Christians involved in education should be: on what basis do we teach character? How do we come to a shared understanding of right and wrong, even good and evil, in an age, as Nietzsche said, that is “beyond good and evil?”

(James Davison Hunter’s book The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good and Evil is the book on this topic. One I would assign every public school [and homeschool and Christian school] teacher in the land.)

However we land on that question, we should minimally ask ourselves, what is our lesson plan for teaching students to face and overcome failure? I’m not sure this is the foundation of character – but it is the foundation of grit.

Thinking about what faith says to k-12 education? Join us on November 2 for Weighing the Options: What Educational Choice is Best for Your Kids?

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