“What Makes the Muskrat Guard His Musk?”

“There is only one way to truly combat bullying. As an essential part of the school curriculum, we have to teach children how to be good to one another, how to cooperate, how to defend someone who is being picked on and how to stand up for what is right.” (Susan Engels, Director of Teaching Program at Williams College)

Engels is right on target with her 4 teaching points, all of which fall under the broad category of character education. Her final two relate directly to one specific virtue: courage.

It’s been said that “courage” is the most important virtue, that without its emphasis on execution, all we are left with is good thinking. But in most difficult situations, the hard part is not cognitive in nature. When you see another boy getting the wet towel treatment, you know what you have to do. The challenge is in doing it.

Aristotle observed that we learn courage by doing courageous things. Gaining courage, then, is more like figuring how to ride a bike than it is learning how to diagram a sentence. We should try to help our boys develop their “courage muscles” by giving them opportunities to test themselves. (By contrast, reading “Huckleberry Finn” or another book with moral dilemmas, may help develop your thinking, but that activity doesn’t provide the pressure you need to actually develop your “doing” capacity.) 

A few years ago I worked at a school where the students debated whether or not  they should adopt an honour code, a code which would require them – not to turn in a wayward lad to the authorities – but to simply confront the offending peer. (For example, if you saw a boy cheat on his French test, the code would require you to talk with him privately about this.) 

After a thorough debate, the majority of students voted against the code. Why? They admitted that confronting a peer was too difficult.  I applaud their honesty; it would have made the world a bit more cynical if they had voted to create a code and then not have had the gumption to actually make it work.). But the experience does leave me wondering how we can help boys work on their courage muscles without exposing them to some sort of resistance. Is there another, perhaps less threatening way to do this?


3 thoughts on ““What Makes the Muskrat Guard His Musk?”

  1. Dear Mr. Power

    Courage and “character” are not taught in a classroom.

    You can slap the word “character” on any bundle of feel-good ideas you want teachers to talk about, but true character is formed, and evinced, through action. It’s an empirical process, and to your question, there is no non-threatening way for kids to attain it.

    Schools should give kids the courage and confidence to say or do something when they encounter injustice (as New York City authorities advise these days: “If you see something, say something”). He might add, in the words of Winston Churchill, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen,” but in either case, action is required, not theory.

    Kids can learn to stand for what’s right without the benefit of a code, but they must be prepared to take the hits.

    Folks can philosophize all day long, but the moment of action is what matters

  2. I am not an expert on the subject, but I think Jim hits on an essential aspect- encouraging the bystander/s to speak up. Finding ways to accomplish this objective is difficult as there are many anti bullying programs out there, but few are very effective. UCC is to be commended for its efforts to address the problem, and while some progress has been achieved, more needs to be done.
    An objective audit of the frequency and kind of bullying at school would be a useful first step. Schools that acknowledge the problem are more successful at reducing the prevalence of bullying. We are fortunate to be situated in a city where some of Canada’s foremost anti bullying experts reside. Last year I spoke with York Univiersity’s Dr.Debra Pepler of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution who at the time indicated that she would be more than delighted to work with our school. A program tailored to fit the school could produce, over time, significant outcomes. If even one less boy is bullied at UCC, the school’s efforts would be worthwhile
    One more suggestion: monitored basements. Boys need to feel a sense of safety when they are in the locker rooms. While it would be lovely to live in a society that did not require police checking for drivers’ alcohol levels, and security guards at public events, the school community needs to recognize that locker rooms require closer monitoring.

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