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In the scramble to gather backpacks, pencils and paper and prepare children for another year of school, it also seems worthwhile to ask: “Will my child really learn the lessons needed to achieve in life?” As thousands of children around our nation begin class, many will unfortunately not have an opportunity to study and learn one of the most important subjects needed for success and fulfillment — character.

According to the Philanthropy Roundtable, character formation is “one of the most overlooked needs in America today.” So many children and teens will progress without the real tools they need to navigate a meaningful and spiritually rewarding life. Yes, some families, schools, churches and employers still emphasize critical values that teach us how to love, respect, exercise self-control, adopt standards of good conduct, demonstrate commitment, establish a moral compass, serve others, show compassion, be a good citizen and actually make a difference in one’s neighborhood. Yet acknowledgement of the world around us readily confirms these values are in steep decline.

Perhaps we all need to go back to kindergarten. In 1988, noted author and minister Robert Fulghum penned a collection of essays titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Its thesis: It is in that first year of formal learning that most children learn the basics, including

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Don’t hit people.

Stick together.

Listen.

Play fair.

Clean up your own mess.

Flush.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

How many adults do you know who still have not learned the basics? How many of us know people where these basics, if ever learned, have by now evaporated into the socially and politically corrosive climate in which we live?

Authors David Brooks and Anne Snyder recognize many of our formative institutions have lost sight of teaching telos (purpose) to students, leaving a void in our “individualistic, consumeristic and utilitarian culture.” While no one argues against the importance of the building blocks of reading and interpretation as well as the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, heeding one’s call to a meaningful existence is what ultimately enables the resolve and decision-making to overcome the selfishness, cynicism and distrust now tearing away at American culture.

In the Philanthropy Roundtable’s recently issued “The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Supporting Social and Moral Renewal,” Snyder highlights challenges facing students stepping into the world at large: “Simply put, there are no longer authoritative institutions that are widely trusted. Many of our countrymen disagree about the fundamental nature of the good, about what it means to be an American, about the requirements and rewards of citizenship. In one decade technology has re-wired our relationships to work, knowledge, place and one another. There is a creeping sensation of split-level living between the real and the virtual, of compartmentalized identities and behaviors in a dozen different silos, all leading to widespread experiences of alienation and meaninglessness.”

Any journey into a meaningful existence requires learning at a higher level, one requiring honesty and courage in our present valley of loneliness and spiritual emptiness. The U.S. suicide rate has risen by 30% since 1999 but is 70% percent higher among children and teens. Severe depression has spiked among them. Thirty-five percent of Americans over age 45 are chronically lonely and lack the tools to overcome societal alienation in America. Many students have lost faith in faith itself, unwittingly embracing tribalism to alleviate the loneliness of empty individualism. Without mentors and caring teachers in all institutions at all levels, education as well as workplace, no amount of test-taking will prepare the next generation to improve upon current times.

Even for adults, going back to “real-life school” may require skills long unlearned or even abandoned. Reflection and focus on these unlearned values require time in the wilderness, venues of quiet, simplicity and “fierce attention.” Character-building requires pausing long enough to truly contemplate one’s real dreams and vocation, discovering the inner mystery and confessing the shallowness of superficial goals. It demands courage and personal discovery to see life as more than grades, titles, busyness, new electronics and pay raises. Real learning may call for personal suffering and sacrifice, often part of the path of genuine soul-searching. Even accomplished authors such as conservative thinker David Brooks have discovered it is through these “second mountain” decisions that enlightenment comes.

Real learning ultimately requires character development without our pretentious masks and thinly masked agendas. It motivates us to seek intimate relationships with fellow journeyers and our Creator. It transforms our natural selfishness into generosity and compassion for others, no matter what their color, background, economic status or religion — a lesson sorely needed if passing consideration of events of the day is warranted. It creates a call to positively impact one’s neighborhood, city, nation and world. And character-learning never has a graduation ceremony. The journey and enlightenment never end. Epiphanies are everywhere and wondrous.

Again, to quote Snyder from “The Fabric of Character” (readily available for downloading free of charge from the Philanthropy Roundtable website): “From education to addiction recovery, sports to neighborhood revitalization, the institutions doing the most transformative work speak a common language. It is a language of personalism and relationality, hospitality and recognition of the human soul. And these character builders — whether they self-identify as such or not — are energized and ready to learn from one another, collaborate and reach as many people as are humble and willing to trust.”

For children gathering school materials and preparing to settle into school protocols, a natural excitement and anxiety accompanies the coming year of learning. And as each of us puts summer behind us and returns to our own learning opportunities, may we also seek the unlocked potential to grow and develop physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Have a great school year!

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Jimmy Dorrell is co-founder and president of Mission Waco/Mission World. He is also pastor of Church Under the Bridge and teaches classes at Baylor University and Truett Seminary. He has served on many boards including Teen Pregnancy Prevention Council, Parents as Teachers, Compassion Ministries of Waco, Census 2000 Special Housing Subcommittee and, currently, the Christian Community Development Association.

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