Character ‘etching’ a skill to be learned
“Soft skills“ too often have a hard time getting traction in the marketplace. (Getty Images)
To wit: During a recent confirmation hearing in the Nebraska Legislature, a state senator said he considered a nominee’s character first when weighing an appointment. Of course we also heard Lucifer’s name being bandied about the Capitol so there is that.
Still, I was struck by the character comment, perhaps because the idea of character is often an afterthought in today’s arenas of power and purpose.
Character once rated large letters and bright lights on the public marquee. At one point the phrase “character counts” meant more than simply trying to squeeze in a thought on Twitter.
Specifically, in 1992 an intrepid group of educators and leaders who worked with young people put together a program called Character Counts. They based it on the idea that character is a skill that can be learned, not an inborn trait — the result of research by two University of Chicago economics professors.
Character Counts, now housed at Drake University in Des Moines, preaches trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, citizenship, fairness and caring, skills that, once acquired, give someone character.
Aside from the confirmation hearings, a recent spate of presidential hopefuls announcing their hope to be the leader of the free world has me wondering if character still plays a role in the story of America and indeed still “counts.”
The word’s etymology can be read two different ways. It comes from the Greek charaktḗr, which was an engraving tool or the mark it made. So, is “character” something etched into the soul of its carrier, or do those who have “character” etch an indelible impression on others because of it? Or does it matter?
Other takes are helpful: Casual students of history know, “the content of their character” has had serious staying power. An Irish proverb proclaims it is “better to be a person of character than a person of means.” A college baseball coach once told me he only recruited “high character guys,” so I figured, in addition to being able to run, hit, and throw, he was looking for some variation of Character Counts’ six qualities.
The Character Counts definition covers plenty of moral and honorable ground; I would add, however, judicious restraint, balance and good manners, even in the midst of passionate or fiery disagreement.
In the drama of the modern public square, that trio — restraint, balance, manners — often play as weaknesses. Even a cursory foray into social media or talk radio or the podcast universe would reveal that outrage, angst and petty, piercing insults produce more likes, hits and followers than reason and dignity.
Plus, character — and I’m wholly onboard that it is a skill rather than a trait, something learned and honed at the kitchen table, in the classroom or on the playing field — could use a publicist.
That’s because we lump its elements listed above into what we call “soft skills,“ which too often have a hard time getting traction in the marketplace. Why not vet for capabilities such as ingrained integrity, equilibrium in periods of dire circumstances or ennui, and collaboration without worry that one’s individual talents will go unnoticed? Instead, we narrow our asking only for cognition: Can you write the code? Make the weld? Sell the widget?
Obviously, we want both hard and soft skills … but we should seek and reward them in equal measure.
So, does character still play a significant role in public life or have we relegated it to a bit part, a supernumerary at best, a postscript of the past?
Surely some voters consider character alongside tax policy, abortion, gun control, foreign policy chops and crime … committed by someone other than their candidate although that might be part of it, too. Some may exercise their civic duty primarily on personality, even looks. A large block decides to vote against one candidate rather than for the other.
Character is learned and forms the foundation for wise, moral decisions. And leaders from the Oval Office to the corner office to the coach’s office are always deciding something that will disappoint or upset or really tick off somebody. That’s the nature of the job. None of which need keep the officeholder from being trustworthy, respectful, responsible, honest, balanced, caring and civil.
I’m looking forward to my summer character “reads,” hoping to find an etched recommendation or two.
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