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5 Characters in Search of Character
from the ACHS 1999 Annual Meeting in San Diego, California

John W. Warren, Phi Kappa Phi

Because of the fear in our litigious society of evoking a detrimental reaction to being judgmental, biased, discriminating, intolerant, we have been making a hasty retreat from our long-time use of character. But that is changing—we've opened the dialogue in ACHS and in Phi Kappa Phi. I was honored to be asked to give the "character" speech at Phi Kappa Phi's focus on character at the 1998 National Convention.

It is my contention today that on the matter of good character we must not waiver; it is the sustaining fiber of Phi Kappa Phi, the entire honor-society movement, and society in general. I hasten to add that we cannot ignore the potential risk to all of our societies; this is all the greater reason to seek a means of preserving this precious commodity in a workable context.

I wish to share a story that illustrates why this matter has created so much concern and has become so difficult to resolve: A father was attempting to explain to his ten-year-old son the necessity of giving up something for Lent. In fact, the father suggested that the lad give up candy. Quizzed by the boy about this kind of religiosity and what it would bring, the father replied, "It will improve your character. You'll be a better person on Easter Sunday if you give up candy. After all, your mother and I have given up liquor for Lent." "That's funny, Dad. I saw you and mother having a drink before dinner last night." "Oh, that was wine. We gave up hard liquor." "Okay, that's good," the boy replied. "Then I'll give up hard candy."

Is not this father doing what we do and accept pretty much as the norm any more? We rationalize our values. In thinking about our perception of character and the values associated with it, I am reminded of Hamlet's reply: "Words, words, words… ," and a few minutes later, he said, "They have a plentiful lack of wit." When language loses its directness and exactness, it loses meaning and value And when good character is replaced with the rationalization that anything goes in our social code, there is no longer stability or moral stamina or strong conviction.

For a moment, let's step back in time. This thing called character has long been a central focus of the learned person. As early as the 6th century, one Greek philosopher asserted that "Character is destiny." Could we not suggest an application that "good character" is good destiny? Aeschylus affirmed this value in his axiom that "it is not the oath that makes us believe the men, but the man the oath." Without character, the oath is meaningless.

Recently rummaging through book in an antique shop, I picked up an old volume, entitled THE MOTHER'S BOOK, published by The University Society in 1911, eighty-eight years ago. Of the seven chapters in the book, by far the longest was "Conduct and Character Building." This author explains character by describing values and actions that it elicits. With a discussion of about 75 attributes, we can be assured that this author had no doubts about the concept of good character. Listen to some of these extensions of good character: generosity, honesty, honor, industry, kindness, loyalty to principles and ideals, manners, obedience, patriotism, sense of responsibility, personal honor, and the list continues. These are some of those connections one of our speakers yesterday was talking about. Who wants to eliminate such values?

This topic of good character or its equivalent word "ethics" for the past dozen years has received major attention in education, government, business, and about every facet of life. Special courses and seminars have appeared in university curricula, in business workshops, and training sessions. Out of these activities have been attempts to formulate a code and disseminate that code to constituents. Such attention reinforces the significance of our topic and an almost universal endeavor to retrieve something called good character that is lost in all these areas.

Are we really out of step in being concerned about the recognition and promotion of good character in our requirements for membership? On my trip to Phi Kappa Phi's national convention last summer, I opened the airline's magazine to its "Spotlight" section. There under "No Laughing Matter," I discovered that concern about morality is resounding in the political world in a bipartisan way. For example, there was the prominent Democratic Senator Patrick Moynihan's statement that our society has been "defining downward accepting as part of life that we once found repugnant." And Republican Congressman John Duncan saying that we have lost our ability to be shocked anymore and that we need more people standing up for what is right, decent, and good."

Where do we as honor societies fit? Several of you, I'm sure, received a copy last summer of FORUM, a special issue published by ASAE with articles pertinent to non-profit organizations. The headline topping the front cover was "Professional Ethics Standard Adopted." Introducing the written discussion was a statement I might have read from the MOTHER'S BOOK or from Greek philosophy. Relative to non-profits was the directive: "Our staffs and boards—volunteers, chapter officers—leaders, we are role models; we must set the standard for our members to emulate." Two lists were given in this story: One to executives; the other to the governing board and the volunteers, who would be chapter officers and others active in chapter programs. Both standards are certainly more than "words, words, words." Among those to the executives were such directives as "Be loyal to the organization and discharge responsibilities in a manner that fosters the mission," "Promptly disclose any conflicts of interest," "Treat staff, volunteer leaders, members, and the public in a fair and consistent manner, free of favoritism and prejudice," "Be respectful of others…," "Demonstrate respect for others' ideas and property…" Similar directives were addressed to the entire governing body.

I do not believe that my Society and ACHS members are on the wrong side of this issue. I also believe that all universities, for instance, have certain parameters or standards of proper behavior on their campuses. These regulations will certainly differ from one campus to another, whether public or private or parochial; but, in general, they all incorporate basic human values of good character and conduct. Here we have a framework for a first test of good character.

One of the most encouraging treatments of this theme appeared in a nonfiction book about a year ago that is familiar to those in business. It was Robert Bruce Shaw's TRUST IN THE BALANCE: BUILDING SUCCESSFUL ORGANIZATIONS ON RESULTS, INTEGRITY, AND CONCERN. What he basically says is that "Grandma Was Right." In addition to our FAX, computers, rolodexes, and files, the real business necessity is an important component of character-TRUST. It is time, Shaw says, to throw this seemingly intangible value into the business mix. He argues that the value or trust (I say good character) evolves naturally if leaders achieve consistency, act with integrity (even when no one is looking) and demonstrate concern for others.

Sound old fashioned? Well, it is. It is one of grandma's commonplace principles—THE WAY TO ENGENDER TRUST IS TO EARN IT; THAT IS DEVELOP GOOD CHARACTER. Now the 64-dollar question, How can we certify good character of our initiates? I affirm that I have no problem with either of the two criteria for membership: outstanding achievement and good character. Why not? Because one engenders the other.

Samuel Butler, in his classic work THE WAY OF ALL FLESH, says "every man's work, whether it be literature or music or pictures, architecture, or anything else, is always a portrait of himself" and that a person's character will appear in spite of himself." Why? Whatever has molded or shaped that individual will show. If the instilled values are good, you will see good character, if bad, you will see bad character.

Now the application! In higher education, we are in the business of educating for life, not just for a job. A complete education shapes and molds character; at least, it takes what our parents and churches and public schools have done and then hopefully refines and polishes. A genuine university education elevates the whole person into an integrated individual. Math, sciences, humanities, technology, art— the entire gamut of the general curriculum elevates the senses, the mind, the emotions, and the soul. As a chair of English in an engineering university for almost twenty-five years, I worked repeatedly with engineering accrediting teams that wanted their majors to be educated as human beings in order to enforce their technical skills. On the one hand, the humanities provide a vision of the ideal, a keen understanding of human nature, of self, and of others; it enriches self in a larger knowledge of human nature. There is also an appreciation for the past, that is, a respect for our heritage. On the other hand, basic values engendered in technical fields and general sciences are discipline, precision, hard work, and a satisfaction in achievement.

If your new initiates have achieved the best of grades in such a value-based liberal core and technical curriculum, have not violated the university's conduct code, have demonstrated the qualities of self-discipline and consistent work to complete their special majors, do we not have evidence of at least the potential for good character building? Our challenge then: We should not and must not yield our stand on good character. Implicit in "outstanding achievement" is an education that has and will engender good character. Whatever we may choose as a resolution in the way/s we articulate good character, we must preserve it—not eliminate it.

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