Teaching Justice and Compassion
As discussed in my last blog, teaching children about virtue has three functions. First, since children have the latent capacity and yearning to be virtuous, the teaching of virtue kindles and motivates these tendencies. Next the teaching of virtue educates their conscience through which children develop a keen sense of right and wrong in their youth, which in adolescence and adulthood can function as a guidepost when they face complex moral and ethical challenges. Finally, when (this is not an “if”) children drift away from living a virtuous life, teaching about virtue reawakens a child’s better self, and reconfirms a pathway toward becoming a lovely person.
As a reminder and as a reference, virtue education at Birchwood School of Hawken centers on Aristotle’s seven moral virtues: courage, self-control, justice, compassion, gratitude, humility, and wisdom. These seven virtues give us language to use with children and they create a schoolwide vocabulary that allows us to reinforce these virtues year after year.
Teaching Justice and Compassion
In my previous blog on courage and self-control, I explained that I will often teach these virtues together since they complement each other. I approach justice and compassion similarly. They have a close relationship.
First, let’s look at the term justice. The word is closely associated with “right” or “righteousness.” Being just or practicing justice or being righteous, is to show due appreciation for people and things. Having carefully, thoughtfully and purposely attributed particular value to people or things, we conduct ourselves accordingly. As we will see later, making determinations of value is based upon an exercise of the other virtues. But for now let’s understand the practice of justice to be the exercise of being right or just toward that which we value.
With children, I often identify four broad categories of things we ought to value and toward which we should practice justice: being right toward self, being right toward others, being right toward duties, and being right toward God (or some notion of absolute truth to which a person holds himself accountable).
I begin by teaching children to value themselves and in valuing themselves they ought to behave justly toward themselves. In other words, I tell them, “You have talents, potentials, capacities. Whether or not they are brought to fruition lies within your power. It is up to you to value who you are and develop what you have. Only when you are just toward yourself will you be able to become what you can become. You have to discover, little by little, who you are, and then invest your time and energy to develop these qualities. Don’t make excuses, don’t blame others. Be just toward yourself.”
It is important to begin the pursuit of justice here: be just toward yourself. Establishing a healthy self-concept out of being responsible to yourself, will lay the ground work to exercise meaningful justice toward others. Take responsibility for the person you will become and take responsibility for the things you will accomplish.
I recognize that this advice is counter to our cultural tide. Tracy Cross, Distinguished Professor of Gifted Studies at Ball State University, explains that during the past 50 years, the metaphor for life among young people has changed. In the first half of the 20th century the metaphor was life as achievement; its models were Edison, Einstein, Jackie Robinson. Cross laments that now the metaphor for life has become life as entertainment. The change in outlook deeply affects how young people approach life.
But if we assume the charge to teach children about virtue, to teach them about justice toward themselves, I can tell you from my 40-plus years of experience working with children that they will respond. Children are capable of listening to, responding to, and taking action upon challenges that require them to be responsible to themselves. You might be surprised, but children love it when we talk to them in this manner.
For the first 15 minutes of each school day, I talk to my students about becoming a “great person.” It is the language I use at school for teaching children how to live a life of becoming. For instruction, I use everything from movies, to simulations, to lectures. But always I place the responsibility of becoming great squarely upon their shoulders, “It is your job to become what you can become, and then you will become great!” Intuitively, they know it is true and they are inspired. They simply need the courage to think it is so and the support that helps them act upon it. Then, of course, children need adult encouragement and guidance. But because this virtue is intrinsic to their human makeup, they respond.
What invariably occurs when we empower children to be just toward themselves is that their confidence grows. They witness first hand that they can do something about improving and growing. They can get better at tasks and improve their achievement. Their self-worth is validated and they are inspired to develop further who they are and what they can do.