William James on Habit and Character by Charles Debelak

Habits blog picture Birchwood School of Hawken

Birchwood School of Hawken preschool student

A View from History and Research

William James on Habit and Character

The accumulation of habits plays a major part in who we are and how we approach life. Habits define our character and our character is inextricably tied to how our life unfolds. Our destiny is embedded in our character, at least to the extent that we are able to effect outcomes in our life. In the late 19th century William James, philosopher, psychologist, co-laborer with John Dewey in establishing the philosophical school known as pragmatism, described his observations of the power of habit:

“All our life, so far as it has defined form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be … [Habits allow us] to do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all. [Once we choose who we want to be, people grow] to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds.”*

What are we doing at Birchwood? Building habits, habits of the intellect and habits of character. This is hard, painstaking work – for children, for parents and for teachers. The first time children face intellectual challenges that require work, it is difficult – for everyone! Children complain, whine, make excuses and even become belligerent. The resolve of parents or teachers wilts. “Is this possible?” they lament. Possible?! Most assuredly, yes. These efforts, given time bear fruit. One of my maxims for wilting parents is “Time is on OUR side! This is the side of caring parents and teachers, who with patience and persistence, create environments that forge intellectual and character habits leading to personal happiness and success.

The tale ends well. Intellectual tasks and virtuous behaviors become easier and easier until they are automatic. Once made automatic, virtuous and intellectual habits define a major part of who we are in the world.

* From “The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America,” a 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Louis Menand.

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