Back when I was the Director of the Puget Sound Community School (PSCS), I often offered a class called “The Importance of Virtue.” I began the first class session by telling the students the class was predicated on a couple of my personal beliefs:
- There exists a way of behaving that, if followed, either purposely or by accident, leads one to live a good life (it can be described in a much more complicated way, but I’ll leave it at that as that was how I presented it to the students).
- This way of being exists across time and across culture; in short, it is universal. The behaviors, once identified, are “virtues.” And so goes my definition of virtue — simply put, a virtue is “a behavior that makes one good.”
The purpose of the class, I told the students, was to begin to identify these behaviors.
I would start this process through the introduction of literature, although I used movies and other means, as well. In classes that went beyond the initial phase, I helped the students test whether the virtues we discussed passed the “across culture” test. For instance, if “compassion” was being considered as a virtue, could we find examples of it in historical religious texts, in indigenous cultures, could we imagine it in the distant past, in the future? Has it always been something that would “make a person good?”
One year, I began the class talking about “love.” What is it? Is it a behavior? If so, what does it look like in practice?
To illustrate love, I read a passage from “The Little Prince,” the part where the prince, under the urging of the fox, tames the fox, followed by the passage where the prince leaves the fox and the fox is sad but the yellow wheat fields have new meaning because they will forever remind him of the prince’s blonde hair.
I think it is very poignant, especially in sharing them with young people, to dissect these passages and talk about how one loves, the importance of love, etc. As often happened, reading the one passage lead to a whole other class being offered, a “The Little Prince” read aloud where, over several days, I read the book to interested students (some in the “Virtues” class and others, as well). After that, we watched a claymation adaptation of the story. Throughout, I engaged the students in dialogue about the various concepts the book raises.
Soon thereafter, I read from “Les Miserables.” If you are familiar with the story, I read the passage in which the Bishop not only pardons Jean Valjean for stealing his silver, thus freeing him from the police, but gives him his silver candlesticks, thus freeing Valjean’s soul. This act of mercy is the ripple on which the rest of the book is based.
The four students involved that year were so moved by this passage and our subsequent dialogue on the subject of mercy as a virtue, which covered personal topics to alternative responses that the United States could have to bombing Afghanistan, that I was asked to read “Les Miserables” aloud, which I did.
Returning to my personal beliefs, I believe that human beings are good, by nature, and that the role of education is to help children refine their inherent “goodness.” In doing that, and by providing a safe, loving, respectful environment for children to grow, we need not require academics and other subjects in school. In the right environment, those things truly valued in a culture will be naturally acquired by children as they grow.
I created PSCS based on this concept.