Updated: June 29, 2012 9:49AM
‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” So the Book of Galatians tells us.
Well, there is kind of a law against these things — one sure can’t teach them in public schools and even private non-religious ones. At least, one can’t teach that such things are found in the Bible.
So, it turns out these character traits just get renamed. At least, that is what seems to have happened with an experiment going on in certain New York City schools. A list of desired character traits — according to a recent New York Times Magazine story — has been narrowed down to these: zest (or what could be joy), optimism (or peace), grit/sticking with it (patience or faithfulness), self-control, social intelligence (gentleness or kindness), gratitude (joy) and curiosity. There was a debate about that last one; it replaced “love.”
Anyway, it’s not a one-to-one correlation, but it’s close. Now let’s back up: In the fascinating piece by Paul Tough, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?,” the author follows two school leaders in New York City. One heads a prestigious private school, the other is the superintendent of a consortium of charter schools serving low-income children.
It turns out these two men, Dominic Randolph and David Levin, had a meeting with Martin Seligman, whom I’ve written about before. He has done groundbreaking research into happiness and what he calls “learned optimism.”
What intrigues me here is that all the players involved, including the New York Times writer, seem to think they’ve essentially discovered electricity. The discovery trail goes back to Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleague, Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan. They have just finished a scholarly book called Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. It’s an 800-page work that is “an attempt to inaugurate what they (the authors) described as a ‘science of good character,’” according to Tough.
An 800-page book meant to inaugurate the “science of good character”? Does anyone see where I am going with this? When such a tome is presented as coming from the God of the Universe, it’s, at best, unenlightened, or, at worst, illegal, at least in many schools. But when it comes from the gods of the academic world, it’s an inspiring New York Times Magazine feature about a groundbreaking new way to think about character.
Now I certainly believe that God can handle the copyright infringement. I’m not sure those using such supposedly new wisdom can successfully play with fire. The authors of Character Strengths believe that the traits they discuss in their book, many of which they admit are ancient, have value because they have practical benefit. Randolph and Levin appreciated such so-called performance character traits and culled from the book, in large part, for their list of seven character necessities for their schools. In fact, Levin told Tough, “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach is it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment.”
Really? So what about when these character traits don’t work in a worldly sense? When social intelligence is rewarded with derision, or faithfulness in a friendship meets betrayal? When these “practical” character traits are no longer practical, then by definition they lose their value. Instead, it should be obvious that only when such things are rooted in immutable truths of a Creator, having excellence regardless of their effects in the moment, can they really be worth building a life upon.
But, apparently it’s not obvious at all.
People intent on eschewing God to become their own gods. No wonder the Ecclesiastes writer says that “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Scripps Howard News Service