Character - What Matters To You?

Head of Upper School Rebecca Zug shared reflections on The Road to Character by David Brooks, and the idea of seeking "a vocation in life rather than a career" and approaching the world "with humility, courage and purpose."
Dear Friends,

As we return from the long weekend, I am thinking about David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character. Whenever I visited my father over the summer he would tap the cover with his glasses, look me square in the eye, and insist that I drop everything to start reading. I’d seen Brooks interviewed about his premise on television and read many of the editorials that formed the argument of the text. Still, it was a profound read and truly gave me pause about how we live, parent and educate today. He urges us to refocus around principles and virtues he calls the “Humility Code.” In this mindset, we seek a vocation in life rather than a career. We develop the character values we would want in our eulogies, rather than resume additions. We approach the world with humility, courage and purpose, as opposed to self-aggrandizement.

Brooks’ develops biographies of different people he feels exemplify character: Dorothy Day, Samuel Johnson, St. Augustine, General George Marshall and Frances Perkins, to name a few. These figures did not live perfect lives with straight trajectories towards greatness. They were like “crooked timber” in which they grew strong over time through self-reflection, hard work, and courage. Often they experienced hardship or failure in early adulthood, only to find their vocation as a result. Brooks urges us, through the stories of these heroes, to have national debate on the values we uphold today as a society.

I was at a memorial service recently and could not stop thinking of this book as I listened to poignant, funny, emotional remarks about the life of someone with unbending integrity, who cared for others tirelessly before she worried about herself. Society sends many messages urging us all to accentuate our strengths and market ourselves for the next impressive resume-building appointment. As a parent, I have the fears we all share about how the world is increasingly competitive. How can our children distinguish themselves to earn a future of financial independence? It was refreshing to be reminded that what matters most is how we treat one another with generosity and kindness.

Luckily, at Wilmington Friends, we partner with you to teach the importance of character. As I mentioned at Parent Night, the learning outcomes of the International Baccalaureate program synthesize so beautifully with character-building. Our graduates become: inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced and reflective. You can see why offering the International Baccalaureate makes so much sense as a Friends school. In all the classes from ninth to twelfth grade, students are growing in these areas. And on the court, the field, the stage as well.

We recently had a discussion in my Theory of Knowledge classes about how these skills require agency. To be “caring” means that you are responsible for action based on your knowledge. To be “principled” means that you understand your own beliefs and live accordingly. To be “balanced” means that you make choices to live a well-rounded existence. These are not, in other words, academic skills learned in isolation. These are skills for thoughtful living right now, in the present.

The students, of course, may not realize they are learning these things intentionally. And that may be the best part. They absorb the importance of character continuously, in small and large ways. Just last Thursday we gathered for Meeting by advisory, watched a Brene Brown video on empathy, and shared ideas on the differences between sympathy and empathy. We teachers have the benefit of seeing them bloom in these areas over the span of their time with us; we see it in how they listen, help one another, take academic risks and handle disappointments.

So I encourage you to read Brooks’ book and engage in conversation about what matters to you. As we head into the season of gratitude, I am grateful to be in a community where character is so important.

In Friendship,
Rebecca Zug
Head of Upper School