What It Takes
Proverbs 31 (from The Message) and Mark 9:30-37
When you go home and look up Proverbs 31 in your Bible, it is likely that this section will be called “the good wife,” so titled by the editors of your Bible. The word WIFE is interesting because, except for hanging out by the city gate with the other respectable guys, the husband in this proverb doesnt really appear at all. Instead a picture is painted of a completely self-possessed, self-sufficient person – she may indeed be a good wife, but obedient (long expressed as a primary if not THE primary wifely ideal) doesn’t appear in her list of attributes at all – instead she is trustworthy, hardworking, respectable, an early riser, a prosperous businesswoman, well-dressed, artistically skilled, genereous to the less fortunate, prepared for anything, strong, dignified and worthy of praise.
On a first read, I have to admit I found this person a little depressing – she seems to truly have it all, and it’s easy to think she must have been born that way.
But remember this is found in Proverbs -- a book of teaching and learning. What if this person comes at the end of the book as a way to say “yes, this CAN be taught” Maybe she wasn’t born this way.
This summer we did a visioning process. Although there was diversity of opinion, I was struck by the ones that had very similar answers. When asked what you liked best about neighborhood, overwhelmingly it was the beauty of this area
When asked what you thought were the biggest challenges facing the neighborhood, overwhelmingly it was education.
There are probably as many opinions as there are people in this room, but one thing we can all agree on is that what we are doing in the education system needs work. Stats are readily available about crumbling buildings, crowded classrooms, and failing students.
In spite of the best hard work by most educators that I know (and I’m betting you know too), the current public educational focus on testing, while making some things easier to measure, has not seemed to actually make the education system any better.
So, more and more thinking is turning to alternative ways of measuring. The weird thing is – if we focus on these hard-to-measure things, than the easy to measure things go up. People get better grades, they are more likely to stay in school and moer likely to attend and to graduate from college.
Educator and author Paul Tough said in a recent interview about his experience in the Chicago school:
“There are some studies where they've taken kids in middle school and given them a college mentor. And this college mentor would work with these kids not very intensively, like meeting with them a couple of times a year. And the only thing that they would say to them, the only message that they would give to them, is simply this idea that, "You know, scientists have studied intelligence. And they've found that you can improve your intelligence. So you should just think about that as you're going through your day." ..if you think that, especially when…when you're a teenager, you do way better at school. It gives you this sort of confidence, this optimism, this ability to try new things, to push yourself harder.”
In other words: If you just tell young people they can improve their intelligence – tell them they are already smart and they can make themselves smarter – they can and they do.
Ira Glass interviewed Paul Tough on a recent episode of the OPB radio show This American Life that several people brought to my attention. In addition to Tough, Glass also interviewed James Heckman, an economist (of all things) who is studying how what he calls non-cognitive skills can be developed and, and how their development improves education. Glass gently teased Heckman that he and his fellow researchers used a lot of other words in talking about non-cognitive skills – soft skills, social skills, personality.
It’s Because, Glass jokes, you guys haven't come up with a term yet.
Heckman replies: Well, no, we have -- character. Character. The trouble is "character" sounds very moralistic. It sounds like we're running a Sunday School.
Hey, guess what, we ARE running a Sunday School.
So we’re fortunate at HCCUCC because we can just go ahead and say this out loud
– we are here to teach character.
James Heckman said it last week, but it’s not like this is news.
75 years ago, Mahatmas Gandhi said : Gandhi said: It is beyond dispute that a child, even before it begins to write the alphabet and gathers worldly knowledge, should know what the soul is, what truth is, what love is…
Every child should learn what the soul is, what truth is, what love is… These things don’t just happen. They can and must be taught. You are not born with character – like the proverbs woman, you can develop these skills – the skills that strengthen you - to become and to raise people who are trustworthy, hardworking, respectable, an early riser, prosperous, artistic, generous to the less fortunate, prepared for anything, strong, dignified, kind.
We need major reform within the schools, that much we know – having a well educated citizenry affects every aspect of our common life together – health care, business, infrastructure, government... No longer are crumbling, overcrowded classrooms acceptable, if they ever were.
But we cant wait. We cant wait for the wheels of beaurocracy to turn far enough for the school systems to develop a solution. Starting here, starting now, we at Hillsdale UCC must make known that we are a place where character is taught and learned, because, studies show and our faith tells us that learning character is not just an extra, it is fundamental.
And the thing is it’s simple. As simple as telling a middle schooler 2 or 3 times a year “you know, your intelligence is something you can develop – you’re not just stuck with what you’re born with.”
As simple as putting a child in the center of things, just for a moment. When Jesus takes a child and puts him in the middle of the crowd of disciples, and rests his hand on the child’s head, he is not just using the child as an example, he is conferring a blessing upon that child. Jesus was not a statician, an economist or a trained educator – he just met one child, where that child was and blessed him. This was an ancient practice among his people, and recognized the child, not as just the sum of his parts but as a whole person, one who was seen and known by God, one who knew truth and love, one with worth, one with (as we would say now) Character. We can be that hand of blessing, friends.
Sometimes I will tell you that what Christ asks of us is hard, but this is simple:
We don’t have to formally mentor kids, tutor them weekly, set up programs of enrichment in music or the arts to supplement what they’re not getting in school – although all of those things are fantastic.
Because, building character, the foundation for all other learning is simple. As simple as:
Teach them the stories of our faith and tradition
Learn their names
Pray for them
Make a space for them and sometimes put them in the middle
Occasionally let them know “you know, we love you just like you are, and we love you enough to know you can be more than you are.”
Because, isn’t that really the heart of our faith whether we are 4 or 94? That God looks at us, loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way? That, by grace, we are capable of incredible acts of transformation?
The This American Life show I referenced earlier interviewd a young woman named Kewauana who was involved in an extra-curricular character-building program. She went from being a failing student suspended for fighting to a college student who willingly asks for help when needed. “There’s no more shame in my game,” Kewauna says.
As James Heckman said: “What we've learned is that (character) can be shaped. And as an economist, what I like about it is that it has this possibility of reducing inequality, but not doing it through the standard mechanism of just handing out money…
The idea is you make the poor highly capable…And I'm personally very excited by that. And a lot of the evidence comes together, whether it's neuroscience, psychology, economics. It's the confluence of these things. There are these happy times in science and social science and knowledge where different strands come together. And I think we're at such a time.”
These are happy days for James Heckman – when all things are coming together in the creation of whole people. But as people of faith, we’ve knownw this all along. From the days a woman learned enough to become trustworthy, hardworking, respectable prosperous, artistic, generous, well-prepared, strong, dignified, kind; from the days when Jesus blessed a child – recognized that child as a whole person; from the days when Gandhi took it for granted, it was “beyond dispute,” that a child had to learn truth and love before a child could learn anything else. To Kewauna, who’s got no more time for shame in her game. To this day, to this place. Let’s put our children in center, at least some times. Let’s tell them this: You matter. Your character matters. And, you can more, so much more, than the blessing you already are.
(Note: Personally, although it is discouraged on the website, I much prefer reading transcripts of This American Life to listening to it. You can do either, or both, here.)