Development of Character

The development of character is education in what to desire.

by Charles Debelak

This article was written for the Birchwood community by Head of School Charles Debelak and appeared in Birchwood School of Hawkens Clipboard newsletter. Mr. Debelaks writing provides parents with information about sound educational principles and child development issues gleaned from history, contemporary research, and his 50+ years of educating, coaching, and counseling children, young adults, and parents.

In order to equip children to lead a life of becoming, we develop their intellect and character. Intellect and character are two sides of one effort. The development of intellect is training in how to think. The development of character is education in what to desire.
Through the elementary and middle school years, we are planting seeds of thinking well and desiring well. Our curriculum, auxiliary programs, and cultural ethos are meant to start a process whereby children strive to become the best version of themselves at each stage of their life, to become what they can become toward themselves and others. We understand the importance of the first 15 years of life and we create experiences and opportunities that set children onto a pathway of living in which they reason through and desire that which is best for them and for those in their circle of life.

Desiring Well
The development of character in many ways is the development of healthy emotions and healthy psychology toward being and behaving.
Learning to “desire well” is learning to aspire toward those features of exceptional human life which are universally acknowledged and valued by people of every culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. These features are also behaviors honored across time and space.
At Birchwood, we borrow language from history, and label these features “natural virtues.” They are called “natural” because they are common to our humanity. For example, compassion is a natural virtue. We are naturally inclined to embrace its value. It would be hard to imagine a life of human beauty and integrity that did not value compassion. Furthermore, can we imagine an argument against fostering more compassion? Not really. It is a “natural virtue.”
The term “virtue” is easily misconstrued because of its archaic connotations. But at Birchwood, we use this ancient term to identify beautiful human behavior, and it is NOT to be confused with narrower definitions of virtue which make the term specific to any culture or any period of history. Once again, the term “virtue” is used at Birchwood to denote behaviors that are revered and honored universally.
Seven Moral Virtues
There are many descriptors for moral virtues, so for our educational purposes at Birchwood, we simplify the list by using seven Aristotelian moral virtues – courage, self-control, compassion, justice, humility, gratitude, and wisdom. In subsequent issues of the Clipboard, I will explain these terms and especially how we place them in an educational setting to nurture healthy “desires” and excellent behavior.