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Character building — the forgotten role of academia

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The growing achievement gap between the students from well-off and not very well-off backgrounds is one of the important social issue for Pakistan. In every city of the country there are neighborhoods and schools where stu

Dr Ifra Iftikhar
Dr Ifra Iftikhar

dents have been failing for decades and generations, to avail the top job opportunities and to enter the high valued job bracket. These students are our human capital and we cannot afford throwing them off. We can neither afford it at the level of economics nor at a human level. This situation needs to be addressed as a policy question. What can we do to steer more students in a positive direction.
Research has shown that there is direct link between the childhood disadvantages and diminished educational outcomes. Disparities in early childhood experience produce disparities in cognitive abilities especially in literacy skills. Such disparities show at every level from school to university. Researchers looking into the causes of persistent poverty coming from variety of fields, usually working entirely independently of one another have identified a very different set of skills that may turn out to be the answer to the question that why some students succeed and others do not. These include the fundamental human qualities like persistence, industriousness, resilience, self-discipline, conscientiousness, and self-confidence. Economists call these non-cognitive traits. Psychologists call them personality traits. For neuro scientists these are executive functions but for a common person all these qualities mean character. So they all agree to a point that it is the non-cognitive and personality traits that make the difference rather than high IQ levels or the genetic profiles. Character refers to a set of traits or skills that can be learned, acquired and taught. It is not something innate; that a person either has it or not.

Character strength, researchers believe, is fundamental for worldly material success also as opposed to the popular belief of its abstract usefulness only. Character strength is now understood more as practical personality skills that can lead to a good life rather than mere moral virtues with no relevance to worldly pursuits. Psychologists and academicians believe that for a meaningful and fulfilling life a person needs to have a strong character. The strength of character is to a large extent is determined by seven necessary qualities namely; grit, self-control, curiosity, optimism, zest, social intelligence, and gratitude.

Grit means focused perseverance. It is an ability to remain focused and stay on course even in most ordinary tasks without getting distracted even when it is boring or frustrating. Self-control is to be able to regulate one’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior and resist distractions. Curiosity is to seek information for its own sake. Optimism is to stay motivated even when things don’t go well and believe that one can improve. Zest is passion and enthusiasm for work. Social intelligence is awareness of other’s feelings and motives, the ability to understand, adapt, and to find solutions when in conflict with others. Last but not the least is having the sense of gratitude. Gratitude means not only to appreciate the benefits and opportunities one gets from others but having the desire to reciprocate with positive actions. Thus, strong character is the secret recipe for success.
Character strength and virtue are considered intangible, immeasurable soft-skills; therefore easily overlooked in pursuit of other short term visible goals. Personality development is one of the major responsibilities of academic institutions and should not be left solely to family or religion as is usually done. When schools somehow fail to fulfill this duty university is often the last chance to equip them with essential character qualities in students before setting them on to their career paths. Strong character will enable them to not only perform competently but also, direct that competence for the greater good. Research tells us that we remember best the things we study first and the things we study last. It is known as primacy and recency effect. Hence, it is crucial for colleges and universities to be impactful in the arena of character development.
But unfortunately, university is often more focused on specialized education with little emphasis on character. Professors are rewarded for research and publications. The mantra of “publish or perish” prevails and character building becomes the least priority. The four years of graduation are often the last opportunity to improve the students’ competence and character. Teachers must resist the urge to believe that our only responsibility is to provide the subject specific content and leave the rest up to chance.
The first step towards character building begins with a strong positive academic culture based on four elements; respect, ritual, relationships, and responsibility. Students need to learn the concept of respect in terms of integrity, dignity and self-regard. The positive academic environment should allow the students to engage in fair, cordial, and productive relationships with teachers and their fellow students instead of fearful and vain interactions. Every student should be made to accept their responsibilities toward their studies, environment and maintaining peaceful atmosphere of coexistence in the campus.

(The writer is Executive Editor of The Educationist and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Lahore Leads University. She can be reached at: [email protected])

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