The Great Neglect
Manners are apt to be regarded as a surface polish. That is a superficial view. They arise from an inward control.
—B.H. Liddell Hart: Why Don’t We Learn from History (2012).
Here’s something that puzzles me, and I want to introduce it with a question: What is most important for us to learn in our lives? (Please ponder this for yourself for a moment.)
Is it, to think together with you, a particular skill, a particular set of skills, a particular field? What is it that is most important for us to learn?
For me, the answer to this question is to learn to be a good person, and that this means to be a person of good character.
Figure: …said Gustave Le Bon.
I arrive at this conclusion not only because it’s hard, perhaps impossible, to single out a particular skill or field and justify why that truly is most important for us to see through. I arrive at this conclusion because when it comes to what appears to add the most to the quality of our lives, individually as well as collectively, then it must be the cultivation of whatever it is that makes living with oneself and others more pleasant and agreeable, and that now seems to be exactly character. Character, to me, also seems to imply some knowledge and skills we might otherwise be compelled to call out, like, perhaps, manners—hence the introductory quote—, for lacking such abilities would make the cultivation and exhibition of character unnecessarily difficult, if not impossible.
Now, what are we actually teaching?
I argue that we do not at all teach anything for the cultivation of character. (When was the last time you even heard someone talk about it?)
That, to me, is the great neglect; the neglect to teach and at all raise awareness for the possibly most important thing we can work on.
This neglect is not in our interest; we make life unnecessarily hard for ourselves and others when we fail to learn and teach what makes for a man and a woman of character.
Then, what is character? And where should the education of character be located; where do we and where should we teach what constitutes a great human being?
These are important questions, of course. Compassion, courage, companionship, integrity, self-control, some such values may come to our minds. I believe that in the past—suggesting that character has quite practically been neglected—, we find good ideas and materials about what character is. Note, for example, Samuel Smiles’s 1871 book Character (cf. highlights and former laurels, which, effectively, I’m extending and emphasizing here); 2015 then appeared another work dedicated to the subject, David Brooks’s The Road to Character. As for where, I’m not sure the otherwise critical family unit can be solely responsible, nor that we wish to just leave this an individual affair; yet it cannot be a matter of state education or even the media, for all their troubles. The answer may be somewhere in between, but that is, now, a needed step in the right direction, so that we stop neglecting what may well be the utmost useful and important for us to contemplate and learn.
About the Author
Jens Oliver Meiert is a philosopher and developer (Google, W3C, O’Reilly). He experiments with art and adventure. Here on meiert.com he shares and generalizes and exaggerates some of his thoughts and experiences.