What We're Reading: David Brooks' Communities of Character

"Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education asked 10,000 middle and high school students if their parents cared more about their personal achievement or whether they were kind. Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievement — individual over the group." (Full article here)

David Brooks' most recent column in the New York Times, Communities of Character, resonated strongly with our team at Millennium School. He describes the common problem of schools focusing on individuality over community - valuing personal achievement and resilience far more than empathy or compassion.

He makes a compelling case that these two goals - individual achievement and cohesive community - are not opposed, and in fact work best together. Schools that build exceptionally tight-knit communities often foster exceptional individual achievement, without an "if I win, you lose" mentality.

Brooks didn't say this specifically, but we would suggest that this applies particularly well to middle school. Many of the "achievements" suitable to that age are about learning how to relate to others. If a school is too individualistic, students learn how to play the game, win at others' expense, and work to gain points but not necessarily to build meaningful relationships. This does not serve them well in life, when both our professional success and much of our personal happiness comes from strong relationships. 

A great middle school, we believe, starts with a culture of social safety - meaning that we appreciate and build on our differences - and teaches collaboration, empathy, conflict-resolution and other fundamentals of social-emotional intelligence. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, strong communities are essential for discovering our individuality. It takes social safety for students to try a variety of roles, connect with different kinds of people, and accept the many parts of their personalities. The results? Students who know themselves well and carry the confidence, humility, and curiosity to continue learning. 

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