The Great Neglect
Post from February 1, 2017 (↻ June 5, 2021), filed under Everything Else.
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.
I’ve arrived 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’ve arrived 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 may exactly be 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 doesn’t seem to be 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 admiration, which, effectively, I’m extending and emphasizing here); it almost seems that only in 2015 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 challenges. The answer may lie somewhere in between, but that is, now, a needed step in the right direction, so that we stop neglecting what could well be most useful and important for us to contemplate and learn.
I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
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