Bertrand Russell once gave the ingredients of ’Character’ as Vitality, Courage, Sensitiveness and Intelligence. Though as per the great philosopher above four characteristics might encompass many other virtues but the concept in today’s context deserves wider discussion.
To start with ‘where does the character of a man originate from? a mother’s womb, a cradle, while toddling, prep school or nursery or schools of higher levels, colleges, universities, workplace, family life, retired life, old age, or sickness etc. Next, comes “is character a finite thing” with start and finish points? are people born with the character of sorts? can character be made to order or bought in ready-made form or can character be graded like A and B etc? and finally, is the character like leadership situational etc? The questions could be unending.
A Harvard teacher had said ‘sow an action: you reap a habit, sow a habit; you reap a character, sow a character; you reap a destiny’ driving home the point that action with the right motive is the the start point for the character-building process. Going back to mother’s womb as per the epic Mahabharatha, Prince Abhimanyu was supposed to have learnt the art of warfare while in his mother Subhadra’s womb and our scriptures are full of such stories. Next, as the child grows up it is the mother who moulds his actions, habits and thereby the character itself. After this, it’s time for the outside world to step into a child’s life in his character development which starts with school at whatever small level it might be. This marks the most important phase of one’s life. This also does not absolve parents of their onerous responsibility of playing their positive and active role in the character building of their child.
Unfortunately, most of the working parents of today tend to avoid this, for whatever reasons whether valid or not. Echoing the words of Mahatma Gandhi who said that “education without character is dangerous”(to the society?), can there be any form of education at any level without laying adequate emphasis on building up of good character among the students? If there is any, then there is a strong need to review it as the same is detrimental to the growth of the society and of the nation as students are builders of any nation. School is the place where the actual moulding of character takes place.
No doubt a Greek teacher had said: “give me a child for seven years, afterwards even God or Devil can not change the child”. See the enormous self-confidence and the transformative skills of the teacher. Can our schools and teachers boast of this? though the literacy levels in the country are going up year on year basis but is that sufficient ? are we proud of our youth as good citizens of the country as a whole today? Are academic grades an indication of the student’s good character and sound application skills? Does the education being imparted conform to what Swami Vivekananda had said that “we want that education by which character is formed, the strength of mind is increased, intellect is expanded and by which one can stand on one’s own feet” and in the same vein he further said, “neither money, nor fame, nor learning, it is the character that can cleave through the adamantine walls of difficulties”? School is the place where the character-building process gets nurtured and is fortified with strong foundations as people may forget anything in life but not their school life and their school teachers. Later in the colleges and universities, the walls and roofs are built so that character firmly settles down protecting itself from the harmful attractions of the external world. Strangely it is at this stage of one’s life that deviations start playing major role resulting in huge dropouts from the education field in favour of picking up occupations and even in entering into undesirable activities etc.
No doubt our GER is mere 26% leaving us with lots of concern for the rest as far as higher education is concerned. Sadly our higher education system lacks the study of ‘ethics’ as a course or it is given a cursory deal. Mercifully ‘ethics ‘ as a course is reportedly making its foray into medical education and it’s time the same also forms part of all higher education programs particularly in management and engineering education where quantity is overriding quality now. Though we have a large number of higher educational institutions not many of them figure in the world rankings. Experts label us as ‘a world-class country without a world-class higher education system’ (PG Altbach). Our institutions agreeably are doing a fine job of imparting knowledge which helps one to make a living but not the ‘wisdom’ which makes the life itself with the cultured mind, good judgment, wise tolerance and strong character. The very process of education itself is expected to involve in imparting the quality of mind and character apart from knowledge per se.
The mind is the most divine blessing of God Almighty to mankind but if used improperly it also becomes a curse (‘manayeva manushyanam kaaranam bandhamoksha yoho’- Amritabindu Upanishad– meaning evil thoughts also emanate from mind apart from good ones). Don’t we hear that students of all levels from school to even research scholars resorting to cheating in examinations?. A teacher is expected to evoke in a student a strong desire to learn (ichcha shakti), a desire to seek the knowledge (gnana shakti) and finally a desire to apply the acquired knowledge(kriya shakti) through right code of conduct (achara dharma) coupled with the ability to differentiate between the right and wrong (sada sadviveka buddhi) i.e the power of discrimination. The last two attributes are the most important and that’s where our educational institutions are being found wanting. In fact, the whole problem in today’s youth revolves mainly round the ability or the lack of it in differentiating between right and wrong Once this issue gets addressed in our educational institutions of all levels, nation-building process will get into an auto mode. Fortunately study of ‘universal human values’ is being taken up in a big way in IITs and many engineering colleges across the country. Hope it becomes a compulsory course for all programs at all levels starting from schools.
As per a Greek philosopher, every society will have people of three types of characters. A ‘self-centred guy’ who can not see anything beyond self-interest. In everything, he looks for ‘what is in it for me’ all the time. Next, we have those ‘group guys ‘ for whom their group or community is the sole thing and they can not tolerate anything about other groups and even fight tooth and nail for their group. It is the ‘citizen’ type of character one should look forward to, who builds the society through his positive traits. Our education system should aim in producing the third variety, a need which is being felt today much more than ever before.
Now let us see the state of character development as one enters into society through an occupation. Negative traits of character are likely to surface depending upon the nature of work one is involved in, and the power and authority one wields unless one is in full control of his mind and senses. Ego, honesty, integrity, ethics and related behaviour patterns become more indicative of one’s character. Generally at this stage of life the main three attributes (trigunas) as propounded in Bhagavadgita come into play. The greed to enjoy life in all its forms, through money, fame, passion, desires, exercising of power etc and being highly materialistic, forms part of Rajasic guna. Tamasic character is denoted by laziness, lethargy , wealth seeking, with people around taking care of every worldly need etc and generally with a tendency for not doing anything worthwhile. The fact whether a thing is right or wrong hardly bothers them. Coming on to the third variety the Sattvik or the ‘citizen’ character, it is supposed to be an embodiment of all virtues under the sky even if it sounds little unattainable. With sincere efforts and strong personal principles, it is not impossible to become a Sattvik. Stithapragna (of stable mind and in full control of all emotions) is the highest form of Sattvik/citizen personality or character.
Post active service life and past sixty years of age (Shashtipoorthi) a person’s character changes significantly. One tends to shed things materialistic(though exceptions are there among certain classes of people) becomes kinder and more compassionate, gets spiritually oriented, and generally enjoys the joys of giving. These positive changes need not be attributed totally to any sickness or tragedies one may face at that stage of life, but they could be a natural manifestation of character remained dormant till then. Moving ahead, past eighty years of age (Sahasra Chandra Darshanam – sighting of one thousand full moons in one’s life) one becomes even more detached with things worldly, mostly looking back at the life spent so far, reviving the old memories, renouncing everything etc. Their character at that stage of life is of very little concern to the people, though their life if led with sound character and strong principles becomes a learning ground for all around him.
Having discussed the ‘character’ and its development at various stages of life generally viewed from positive angles only it is necessary to look at it more objectively as “character is what one is, whether good or bad”. Like leadership, the character is neither situational nor one is born with good or bad character. They say that ‘modesty and honesty are lack of opportunities’ if so where is the ‘character’?. Good character is a matter of choice and one needs to nurture it like any other art form. Principled stand and uncompromising attitude are the pillars of strong character. The good character takes one to heights of success but any slip up in character while on top is likely to make the person hit the rock bottom in one go. That is the power of ‘character’. People tend to mix up ‘reputation with the character’ which are different where reputation is what people think of you while the character is what you are. The character can neither be gifted nor bought but can be imitated and imbibed on a self-learning mode from a role model to become either a person of good character or of bad nature. What matters is the motive behind such a learning process and the related habit forming actions. Finally ‘character is what distinguishes one from the other in terms of thoughts, actions and habits’. That leaves us with one final question “ is there anything called Perfectly Good Character or Bad Character each ten on ten”- calls for a deep discussion.
All said and done the fact that an educational institution in general and a school, in particular, lays the solid foundation for building and nurturing the character of a person is indisputable. It is relevant to recall the contents of a letter written by Late Abraham Lincoln, one time President of United States of America to his son’s teacher which may sound very schoolish, but isn’t life a school? and do we ever stop learning? , even if it means developing character at any stage of life…the contents go like…on.”
“ He will have to learn, I know , That all men are not just, all men are not true but teach him also that, for every scoundrel there is a hero; that for every politician, there is dedicated leader….
Teach him for every enemy there is a friend, it will take time I know; but teach him if you can, That a dollar earned is of far more value than five pound.
Teach him to learn to lose, and also to enjoy winning, Steer him away from envy, if you can, teach him the secret of quiet laughter.
Let him learn early that the bullies are easiest to lick…teach him if you can, the wonder of books…But also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and flowers on a green hill side.
In the school teach him it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat….Teach him to be gentle with gentle people and tough with the tough.. try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when everyone is getting on the band wagon….
Teach him to listen to all men…teach him also to filter all he hears on the screen of truth, and take only the good that comes through.
Teach him if you can, how to laugh when he is sad… Teach him there is no shame in tears, Teach him to scoff at cynics and to beware of too much sweetness…. Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidders and never put a price- tag on his heart and soul.
Teach him to close his ears to a howling mob and to stand and fight if he thinks he is right. Treat him gently, but do not cuddle him, because only the test of fire makes fine steel.
Let him have the courage to be impatient…. Let him have the patience to be brave. .Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself, because then he will have sublime faith in mankind.
This is a big order, but see what you can do.. ..He is such a nice fellow, my son.”