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Opinion & Essays - Oct, 1996 Issue #42 

by George and Adrienne Posner 
Educational Consultants, 
Ithaca, New York 

On two recent trips to emotional-growth schools and short-term, therapeutic intervention programs we were struck by the differences in programs regarding the focus of their efforts. While some of these differences can be attributable to differences in clientele, much of the diversity can be traced back to differences in the program’s philosophy.

While most programs serve students with character defects, their approaches to building character are very different. By “defects in character” I mean that most programs serve students who are quitters, dishonest, selfish and self-centered, and are unwilling to accept responsibility for their difficulties.

Most programs approach these issues by putting students in situations that challenge students to examine their role in the situations that have led to their difficulties, to attempt and to follow-through on tasks that may seem impossible at first, to cooperate with others to accomplish tasks that one person cannot do alone, to help other students in their time of need, and to deal more honestly with others and with themselves. Most students resist these attempts in part because the students do not believe that they can or should be challenged.

What we noticed on our trips is that different schools and programs appear to use certain types of situations to challenge students in these ways, while ignoring other types of situations for this purpose. Oftentimes, this focus on one dimension of their program creates an imbalance and causes programs to miss opportunities for student character development. For example, some schools challenge students emotionally in daily or weekly groups and in their work ethic in school jobs, while ignoring opportunities to challenge students academically, physically, artistically, and spiritually.

There is a danger that the orientation of the school or program focuses the attention on just one dimension of human development, while ignoring other dimensions as significant areas for character development. Most of the students served by the schools and programs avoided or quit situations that challenged them. And yet, there may still be an athlete, artist or intellect in many of them. For example, it disturbed us that schools justified the absence of a girls’ softball team because of a lack of interest or the abandonment of a basketball team because it lost so many games that the students became disheartened. What messages did the school send to students when it allowed this attitude to direct the school’s decisions? Similarly, schools that view the arts (especially the performing arts) as a frill miss the opportunity to use them as a means to challenge students to take risks, to put themselves out there, and to work with others toward the accomplishment of something more significant than any of them as individuals.

We are not suggesting that students should be expected to excel in all areas. Rather, we are saying that students who are working on emotional-growth and character issues need to be put into a variety of situations where they can confront some of these issues and overcome their fears. Many schools are missing great opportunities to give students the chance to challenge themselves and to overcome the obstacles that have been holding them back. That is, the students need the chance to try walking the walk in many different arenas. 

Although many schools utilize hiking trails, athletic fields, classrooms, studios, stages, chapels, job sites, and community service projects as educational settings, most do not utilize them to their fullest potential. Each of these settings is a place where emotional growth and character development can occur. Our concern is the level of the commitment that schools give to each of these arenas. 

Copyright © 1996, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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