Character Counts

In his 2004 book, “On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense,” New York Times columnist David Brooks makes a startling observation: for as driven as today’s college students are in terms of activities, ambitions, and aspirations, many have shockingly few moorings as it relates to character. Our youngsters can pack their schedules from 6 in the morning to well past midnight, traipse off to Nepal for service and/or recreation, and speak intelligibly about a range of subjects as if they were well into the 40’s – and yet, many haven’t the foggiest what character means, and they’re not getting much guidance from their universities.

Ironically, my four-year-old, who is light-years away from the college set in terms of intelligence and articulateness, may have more grounding on this subject, thanks in part to her devotion to a DVD by Primary Focus called “Character Counts.” It is a music-infused extravaganza of pretty teens prattling on about how character is “who you are deep inside,” and consists of responsibility, fairness, caring, trustworthiness, respect, and citizenship. In addition to this addictive musical, there are of course the lessons she receives in Sunday School, which are hopefully anchoring her on the timeless truths of the Bible.

Today’s future leaders, in contrast, tend to treat character and values a little more fluidly. The absolute nature of many faiths is seen as archaic and even dangerous. Excessive greed and showiness may be condemned, but it is taken as fact that of course you are going to do everything in your power to advance yourself and take care of your own, even if it means fudging a little and sacrificing the “we” for the “me.” Corruption in government, if seen as evil, is accepted as a somewhat necessary evil; even President Obama, who campaigned as an outsider intending to clean up DC, has largely been given leeway for having to back up on earlier promises, such as to not employ lobbyists.

Brooks says such a vigorous and unfettered pursuit of more and better is prototypically American, and he is correct. But he is also correct in saying that character is also a quintessentially American trait: think of the ways we hallow our Founding Fathers, or cast the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement as heroes.

As it has with previous American generations, time will judge this era’s young leaders. Will unprecedented material comfort and medical advancement cocoon them in comfort zones that dull us? Will the Bush years, financial scandals, and a harsh recession jade them from trusting in otherwise trustworthy institutions? Will they vigorously pursue more and better, or return to traditional values, or try to integrate both into their lives? What will be said about this generation as it relates to reforming long-festering internal wounds surrounding race and equity, fighting for relief and democracy in tattered places around the globe, and birthing the next great technological and scientific innovations?

Here’s hoping all that energy and ambition gets channeled into productive uses, and is infused not only with raw vigor but with a sober commitment to character and truth. And here’s hoping we oldsters can guide and instruct where we can, unafraid to be seen as square or obsolete in the eyes of a generation that is desperately seeking our wisdom and morals even as they speed past us on the path to fulfillment.
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