Parents frequently ask me how they can best prepare their child for college. Invariably what they mean is what kind of academic preparation is best suited to college-level study. An answer that would meet their expectations would list the various classes a high-school student should take or learning skills he should master. This is a good question and one to which I ought to give more thought. But I am convinced that the most important preparation for college is more fundamental. In order to succeed academically in college a student needs to have well established moral values and strength of character. The most important preparation for college is moral training.
A few years ago I would not have given this response. But five years of teaching at Gutenberg College have caused me to place high importance on the role of moral training for academic success. Two realizations have pushed me to this emphasis. First, the challenge of providing our children with a good moral education is becoming greater for all parents, including Christians. Second, the most significant factor in determining a student’s academic success is not his or her giftedness or high-school preparation; it is the ability to work hard day in and day out. Over a four-year period, a disciplined, motivated student will invariably come out ahead of students who are merely talented or advanced.
I do not think anyone would argue with the assertion that there has been a significant change in the moral values of American society over the last thirty years. And no biblically literate Christian would question whether those changes have been for the worse. Some months ago I observed an incident that impressed upon me the degree of degeneration that has taken place. In a downtown area, an old woman with a cane was waiting at the curb for a walk signal. At that intersection two lanes of traffic were allowed to turn across the crosswalk. When the signal changed the woman began to make her way across the street, with obvious difficulty. A car in the closest lane began to make its turn through the intersection, but was delayed by the presence of the old woman. As the woman made her way across the street, the car edged ever closer to the crosswalk in a clear demonstration of its impatience. The woman sensed that she was an inconvenience and tried to hobble a little faster. As she neared the middle of the street another car appeared in the far lane wanting to turn. Now two cars pressed closer. The woman looked at the cars and tried to move even faster. Soon the first car was able to complete the turn and go on its way. Then the second car proceeded on its way. The old woman stepped up onto the sidewalk and leaned against the light pole to rest.
What struck me was not that this situation was unique, but that it was common. One can observe similar acts of thoughtlessness, rudeness, impatience, and selfishness happening many times each day. I did not see the drivers of the cars, but they probably did not realize what they had done. We are by nature narcissistic creatures. Without proper training, we do not fully realize the impact our actions have on others. We blithely live our lives oblivious to the wake of pain and destruction behind us. As the number of people unschooled in virtue increases, society becomes harsh and cruel.
None of this is a new revelation, of course; we could all contribute numerous examples to a list of uncivilized acts that we have seen committed. New to my thinking, however, is that my children are vulnerable to the pull of the culture that surrounds us. Until recently I had assumed that children lovingly raised in a Christian home and taught biblical principles would, in most cases, remain true to those principles. But recently I have seen a surprising number of teenagers raised in just such circumstances reject the values their parents had worked so long and hard to instill in them. This is very sobering.
I realize that children grow up to be independent adults, and each one decides for himself what system of values he will embrace. And throughout history a percentage of children have turned their backs on the values of their parents. My concern stems from my perception that this percentage is increasing significantly. Why would this be so?
Probably many good answers could be given to this question. While discussing this issue with a friend, she suggested a book by Ron Taffel, Nurturing Good Children Now. He argues that the emergence of the television, radio, and movie industries has created a voice so strong, ubiquitous, and real that it vies with parents for the loyalty of their children. It is such a powerful force in our children’s lives that he refers to this pop-culture as the “second family.”
In the past, societies have understood how important moral training is for its members. This was the primary goal of education. Parents taught their children moral values, and society worked to reinforce those values through education and culture. In this sense, culture and education were conservative; they were enlisted to conserve the traditional values of society.
Nowadays, the culture and our education system are being used to subvert traditional values and instill a new morality. Thus they promote iconoclasm and anti-authoritarianism. They promote values antithetical to the good working of society. Thus we are faced with a situation in which the culture has more influence over society than ever before and is promoting values in direct conflict with the traditional values of our society. In this environment parents face a formidable challenge.
Moral training has always been important. But because the obstacles are particularly great right now, this duty takes on greater gravity and urgency. We cannot assume that our children will absorb our values by just being around us. If we love our children we will work hard to teach them how to live wisely—the most fundamental of all skills, but one that is currently suffering from neglect.
The importance of moral training as preparation for college is fundamental. Receiving a good college education is hard work. Good academic preparation and natural giftedness are helpful, but at the end of the four years the students who have benefited the most are those who have been able to harness their talents and skills to the task of learning. Most college students are living away from home for the first time and are in the process of establishing their own independent existence. This is typically a tumultuous period, with a mixture of traumatic and exhilarating experiences. Successful students are those who have the motivation and self-control to work hard day after day in spite of the emotional ups and downs. In other words, the success of a student in college is largely dependent on emotional maturity and sound values.
Furthermore, education is a social activity. We learn from others and with others. If we do not have the skills to work cooperatively and productively with others, we will be severely handicapped. I recently read a book called Emotional Intelligence. The author, Daniel Goleman, argues that as a society we have neglected the cultivation of those skills which enable people to get along with other people and cope with the vicissitudes of life. He points out that one’s success in business and usefulness as a member of society are more a function of one’s emotional intelligence, or maturity, than one’s I.Q. A brilliant worker who cannot get along with co-workers is of marginal value, whereas a worker of mediocre intelligence who is able to elicit good work and cooperation from his co-workers is invaluable.
This dynamic is equally true in the academic realm. While the cooperative and interpersonal nature of education may not be apparent at a large university with lecture-style classes, it is very evident at a place like Gutenberg College where classes are small and discussion-based. In our setting, a handful of students are in the same classes day after day for four years. It is more like being part of a family than part of a class, because students spend countless hours with other people they did not choose. And, as in a family, frictions inevitably develop; actions of one student will eventually irritate another. These kinds of interpersonal problems, if left unresolved, can ruin the discussions for everyone. Therefore helping students work through these problems has become a significant part of the educational experience.
I do not in the least regret that this kind of moral training has become a significant, if unanticipated, addition to the Gutenberg curriculum, because it is such a valuable skill. The ability of one flawed person to work cooperatively and constructively with another flawed person has universal application; whether at work, in friendships, or in marriage, much of life involves relating to sinners and extending to them the same kind of love and forgiveness God has granted us.
I am an academic. I believe academic learning is very valuable. But it is not the most important. The absolutely fundamentally important education is moral training; it is a critical aspect of every human endeavor. A student who is very well prepared academically and morally is ideal. But we live in an age when we cannot afford to neglect moral training. It is, in every way, better to be wise than smart.