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Posted: May 4, 2005 15:30


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By: Four Arrows
(Don Trent Jacobs, PhD, EdD)

[Four Arrows is Cherokee/Creek/Scots/Irish, an associate professor in Educational Leadership at Northern Arizona University and the author of 12 books, including Teaching Virtues, Building Character Across the Curriculum, Primal Awareness, and the forthcoming, Unlearning the Language of Conquest. He can be reached via his website at]

Character education in the US is more about conformity to authority and rules than being a person of good character. It is a form of indoctrination that is less about helping young people become caring, responsible, contributing members of society, than about creating good soldiers or obedient workers. It ignores the true, sacred potential in people by presenting a less positive view of human nature. As a result, character educators rely almost exclusively on rewards and punishments to "teach" good character, a process that achieves the opposite result.

An alternative comes from Indigenous cultures whose approach to helping young people realize their spiritual interconnectedness to all things and traditionally weaves such virtues as courage, generosity, patience, humility, honesty and fortitude into all aspects of learning. Using such a model, teachers are continually looking for "teachable moments" throughout the curriculum to help students understand how knowledge and character interact in ways that make both the individual and his or her world healthier and happier.

At the core of this character education across the curriculum is a constant focus on respecting life in all of its forms and seeing fear as an opportunity for practicing virtue in light of this spiritual awareness. Since fear is generally the reason many troubled children forsake their spiritual knowledge and their quest for good character, this concept is most important. To help the reader understand how traditional Indigenous cultures use fear as a catalyst for mastering a virtuous life, consider this brief story.

Six brothers went out looking for berries and each came upon a huge mother grizzly bear. Each was working on a different virtue and used the encounter as a chance to make it a part of his character:

The first brother was working on humility: "Ah, bear, you are so magnificent! I am so pitiful in comparison. Do with me what you will."

The second brother was working on patience: "I will turn slowly and, inch by inch, move away, ever so patiently."

The third brother was working on generosity: "If you are more in need of food than I am of a few more breaths of life, I offer myself to you."

The fourth saw the encounter as a way to practice honesty: "In truth, had I been aware, I would not have stumbled into your area. I will accept whatever consequences are to be."

The fifth wanted to better master fortitude: With all of his strength and endurance he began climbing a difficult tree and in spite of the pain, he did not let up.

The sixth brother was generous, honest and patient, but needed to work more at his physical courage, so he challenged the bear to a wrestling contest.

In all cases, the great bear smiled then walked away from the brothers. Leaving them unharmed. The brothers, having learned true humility from the encounter, returned to the People with high levels of courage, generosity, honesty, etc., that would serve to help not only themselves but others in living life in the best way possible.

Because so many of our troubled youth have learned to cope with their fears in negative ways, with bullying, drugs, violence, self-injury, withdrawal, etc., this story reveals a way of seeing the world that goes far beyond that which the narrow use of rewards and punishments offers. Of course, going into the wilderness and encountering a bear is not necessary for learning this focus on character. In educational settings, teachers and learners can discuss how different virtues might serve in situations where fear stifles doing the right thing. Besides personal stories, teachers can guide conversations that make connections between all sorts of curricular subjects and the cultivation of character. Nonetheless, even though the grizzly need not be part of the experience, it is still important for all character educators to remember the importance of nature. The fact that wilderness programs are one of the most successful interventions for troubled teens helps substantiate this observation.

Western education that separates itself from nature or places humans above or outside of it is a major reason that the spiritual dimension of character is missing. The possible origin of this kind of education stems from Plato, who was Aristotle's teacher and the student of the father of Western Philosophy, Socrates. He quotes Socrates as saying, "I am a lover of learning, and trees and open country won't teach me anything, whereas men in town do." Such an ideology that places humans above nature and views virtues strictly in anthropocentric terms is problematic. It attempts the impossible—to bring wholeness to people who have separated from nature. This is why character education programs benefit from seeing landscape as sacred, embodying a divinity that it shares with everything from trees and rocks to birds and animals.

Aristotle also added to the problem of the absence of nature with ideas that emphasized the need for external goods in order for a person to play a noble role in life. Happiness, according to Aristotle, is related to reward and punishment. The Indigenous perspective, on the other hand, sees spiritual power as a higher goal than the pursuit of happiness. Spiritual power is unconditionally benevolent. Spiritual manifestations of the powers that inform all living things have generosity in them. So a good character education program simply helps people become aware of these possibilities.

Thus, authentic character education programs must expand beyond a strictly human-centered focus. It requires attention to the animal kingdom and the cycles of nature. Help children learn from the virtues of the snake who demonstrates the virtue of patience as it waits tirelessly for its prey; the generosity of the world in raising the pups of an injured member of the pack; or the courage of the badger as it stands firm against a cougar. Study the journey of geese and imagine how we can learn to care for one another as they do. Watch the struggle of a salmon on its upstream journey and ponder its model for persistence. Help children discover the many symbiotic relationships in nature and wonder why our own institutions believe that competition rather than cooperation should prevail in the affairs of men and women. Have them watch the workings of nature in their backyards and reflect on the possibility that humans are not the only reasons for the universe and that gentleness and kindness spring from trees and plants as much or more than they do from humanity. Encourage children to dialogue, question and create, while "practicing" the virtues as did the six brothers.

Chief Letakos-Les said, "In the beginning of all things, wisdom and knowledge were with the animals. The One above did not speak directly to man. He sent certain animals to tell men that he showed himself through the beasts and that from them, and from the stars and the sun and the moon, man should learn."

When young people are given authentic opportunities to begin to understand what this really means in our world today, outside the restrictions of authoritarianism, behaviorism, materialism and irrelevant curriculum, then perhaps the wisdom of or Indigenous way of living harmoniously in the world will reinvent ways to manifest more joy, love and peace in our world today.

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