When our heroes falter: lessons from 3 UCLA athletes

The recent arrest of three University of California Los Angeles players in China for shoplifting, and their subsequent return to the United States, provides valuable lessons on character, humility, and taking responsibility as role models.

In October, President Trump intervened to facilitate the release of three UCLA freshman basketball players who were caught shoplifting at several stores during a trip to China for an exhibition game.

The players—LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill, and Cody Riley—were suspended indefinitely from the basketball team once they arrived home, and they held a press conference in mid-November to own up to their misdeeds, which could have resulted in up to 10 years in a Chinese jail, NPR reports.

Each player at the press conference admitted to stealing, apologized for their actions, and pleaded for forgiveness in what’s become an embarrassing international incident for the university and the United States.

“I take full responsibility for the mistake I have made, shoplifting,” Riley said. “I know that this goes beyond me letting my school down, but I let the entire country down.”

“I take full responsibility for my actions, and I’m sorry,” said Ball, younger brother of Los Angeles Laker Lonzo Ball.

Jalen Hill told reporters “what I did was stupid, there’s just no other way to put it.”

The students also recognized the impact of their actions on their family, friends, teammates, university, and the United States.

“I apologize to my teammates, my coaches, and my family because of how much negative attention that I put on them that they do not deserve,” Hill said.

All three students stressed that the stealing is not their origin or destiny, and vowed to learn from the experience so it doesn’t happen again.

“I’d also like everyone to know that this does not define who I am,” Ball said. “My family raised me better than that and I’m going to make myself a better person from here on out.”

While these young men are not necessarily role models for most children, as parents don’t want their kids to become shoplifters, they are role models for some, a fact that Riley addressed in a message to his younger brother at the press briefing.

“To my younger brother, Ben, this is not the example that I want to set for you,” he said. “But from here on out, I promise I will be the best role model I can be . . .  for you to look up to.”

Taking responsibility is tough, but the players’ comments show their willingness to own up to their action, to ask for forgiveness, and to enter the slow process of rebuilding trust. Children who watch their athletic heroes humble themselves learn this is the only way to grow. People who can publicly admit their failures, seek the forgiveness of those they’ve wronged, and actively seek to change are the only ones worthy of emulation.

In the book The Death of Character, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter wrote that the most essential feature of character “is the inner capacity for restraint—an ability to inhibit oneself in one’s passions, desires, and habits within the boundaries of a moral order.”

In this case, the student athletes failed by shoplifting.

But Hunter notes that “character is, in explicit ways, the embodiment of the ideals of a moral order . . . ” and the contrition and apology offered by the students illustrate their submission to a moral order they’ve violated.

This is the world we live in: one with fallible heroes who grow only by humility and taking responsibility.

Coaches looking to build strong character in students can find resources in University of Virginia’s basketball program, which coach Tony Bennett built on Five Pillars: Humility, Passion, Unity, Servanthood, and Thankfulness.

The “Young Kings” of Ron Brown College Prep

A cooperation of EdWeek and National Public Radio has resulted in a three-episode profile of Ron Brown College Prep, an all-male public high school in Washington, DC. The result is a look at a public high school creating both a thick culture and a narrative of character.

The Washington Post has described how each day at Ron Brown High School begins, with “a period of reflection, affirmation and exhortation . . . Some exchanges are lighthearted and funny, but just as often they tap into deeper territory. Students have used the session to talk about walking away from a fight, dealing with problems at home, losing a friend to violence.”

“These young men are able to focus on uplifting each other,” said Ben Williams, the school’s 36-year-old principal. “We’ve created a safe space to do things that most young men don’t, regardless of race, which is express emotion, express feelings, express pain. And they’re willing to take those risks without the feeling of being judged.”

Alice Lloyd, writing for the Weekly Standard, describes the morning sessions as beginning with “the boys and the faculty taking their seats around the edges of a rectangular meeting room that doubles as the dining hall. Frederick Douglass, Duke Ellington, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama looked on—their portraits posted on the wall, exemplars of greatness—while students who came in late quietly reported to their teachers.”

“Principal Ben Williams made the rounds, checking in with a few students here and there while they settled in for the school’s core ritual . . . After a few boilerplate announcements, the lights went down and everyone turned their attention to the day’s discussion starter: a clip from the 1990s sitcom?The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in which Will Smith breaks down, from cocky and resentful to tearful and dejected, in the arms of his Uncle Phil when Will’s absentee father has disappointed him again.”

“Adults in the room kicked it off, and then a few brave souls among the school’s 105 students followed their lead, one noting Will’s flamboyance and compensatory good humor: his armor. But most of the boys sat quietly and listened with observable interest while their teachers talked about what’s underneath the armor men wear. A male teacher in his late twenties or early thirties talked of an ‘unsettled part of you to explore,’ a sense of abandonment that stays with you until you can’t ignore it—but you, he addressed the students, the ‘young kings,’ you can have these discussions now. Another opened up about his own sense of abandonment, thinking as a young man, ‘I’m pretty great; why shouldn’t they want me?’ An English teacher scanned the student body for attentive eyes and invoked their literary readings and essays—you know these themes, she reminded her boys. (And from loftier sources than a sitcom, a certain encouraging edge in her voice suggested.)”

Lloyd continued: “At RBHS, students are ‘monarchs,’ their mascot the head of a crowned lion facing head-on, and the teachers and staff who counsel and corral them—homeroom advisers in typical public school parlance—are the ‘council of elders.’ ‘If we’re going to move these young men and grow these young men, we have to model what we expect them to do,’ Williams told me. Their work is countercultural, he noted. ‘It doesn’t matter race or ethnicity, it’s uncommon for a 14-year-old young man to be able to express themselves and especially to be able to feel safe enough to do that in a school environment amongst their peers.’”

The work that these young men are doing is counter-cultural, as Williams described, and so is the work that the teachers and administrators are doing. They are leading a public school that leaves its mark by a rigorous focus on character: all the young men wear uniforms; they have a “council of elders”; and their core values commit them to “respect and humility.” The presence of humility in education can be rare. The very first pillar of their school is character, followed by scholarship and service. They know that the order matters decisively.

“History and philosophy both suggest to us that the flourishing of character rooted in the elevated virtues is essential to justice in human affairs; its absence, a measure of corruption and a portent of social and political collapse, especially in a democracy,” wrote James Davison Hunter of the importance of moral formation in The Death of Character. We know that intuitively, which is why a school like Ron Brown College Prep inspires and excites us.

Educational leaders can take inspiration from the concerted effort to make formation their central priority and to make character an explicit, programmatic part of schooling, beginning by adapting a coherent framework for character like the one from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

MD school connects students with veterans, role models for character formation

Maryland’s Francis Scott Key High School is connecting students with local veterans and other role models in the community as part of a concerted effort to build good character, an ingredient parents cited as a critical component of quality education during interviews with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Audrey Cimino, executive director of the Community Foundation of Carroll County, described in a recent editorial for the Carroll County Times how the FSK Advisory Council and Academic Boosters have deliberately worked to emphasize academic achievement and character education.

The FSK Advisory Council consists of school administrators, faculty, alumni, parents, business, community, and political leaders who came together five years ago to make Advanced Placement tests more accessible to low-income students through scholarships, and boost attendance through McDonald’s gift cards.

But the group is impacting students in other ways beyond academics and attendance.

“The Veterans Day Celebration at FSK has brought the students face-to-face with American heroes and both groups have benefited. The vets get to tell their stories and get to know this new generation,” Cimino wrote. “The students get to hear firsthand the history they have only read about and to appreciate the sacrifices made by previous generations that impact their lives today.”

Last week, the FSK Advisory Council unveiled a Wall of Excellence at the high school—”a place where FSK alumni could be held up to the current student body as examples of what former students had achieved and what was possible for them to achieve as well,” according to Cimino.

“Character counts and it is on display at these celebrations,” she wrote.

The Institute’s “Culture of American Families Interview Report” makes clear it’s very important to present students with role models, particularly from previous generations.

It also highlights the importance of using the word “character” or character’s attending virtues.

In the Institute’s interviews with parents—3,500 pages of transcripts—the words “character” and “virtue” were used only 26 times.

“Parents clearly cared about the character of their children,” the report found, but they used other terms.

Qualities like “courage” or “humility” are difficult to measure, but “the words we use have the power to create the worlds we inhabit,” which is why we have to be intentional about words that are more commanding, authoritative, and inspiring, according to the CAF report.

Survey of Orthodox Jews: Sense of community getting stronger in Jewish schools

A new survey of Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States provides interesting insights into the types of schools their children attend.

The research also highlights what Jewish parents think about the schools—institutions where the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture notes a renewed focus on citizenship and character education, especially on “Musar.”

The Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews, released in late September, “involved a broad literature review, individual interviews, [and] survey development and testing by experienced researchers,” as well as “guidance by an advisory group comprised of people knowledgeable of the community, including rabbinic and lay leaders, sociologists, educators, and academics,” according to the report.

“This report presents findings based on responses from 3,903 individuals in the U.S. who identified themselves as ‘Modern Orthodox or Centrist Orthodox.’”

Questions touched on a wide variety of topics, from religious beliefs to women’s roles, to successes, opportunities, and challenges facing the Jewish community.

About 83 percent of respondents’ children in grades 1–12 attend an Orthodox Jewish day school, and about 75 percent of those are coeducational, rather than single gender, schools.

At the Orthodox Jewish day schools, “Jewish studies are seen as stronger than secular studies (70 percent fully agree that Jewish programs are strong vs. 61 percent for secular studies). Fewer agree that the schools do a good job of teaching middot (52 percent), tzniut (22 percent), or sex education (22 percent),” according to the report.

Parents of Jewish students segregated at schools by gender showed very similar results, though high schools were rated better for secular education, teaching critical thinking, and special education.

“Parents rate fully coed schools best overall, while single gender schools are rated best for Jewish studies and teaching tzniut,” Nishma Research reports.

Tzniut is the concept of modesty or privacy promoted by Orthodox Judaism, while middot refers to principles used to interpret biblical passages.

The Nishma report comes as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture prepares to release the book, The Content of Their Character, which will feature a chapter by Prof. Jack Werthheimer on how character and citizenship are formed in Jewish schools.

In recent decades, one movement influential among Jewish movements in America, including Reform communities, is “Musar,” or “moral discipline.” In an essay for The Hedgehog Review, Geoffrey Claussen, an associate professor of religious studies at Elon University and former president of the Society of Jewish Ethics, argued that one major Musar proponent emphasizes “the honesty, humility, patience, and discipline that doing Musar requires,” and also “advises daily practice—focusing one’s attention on a given character trait every morning, engaging in self-analysis by writing in one’s journal every evening, and dedicating time for study and good deeds on a daily basis.”

Another scholar “adds to this sort of regimen by emphasizing the moral significance of traditional Jewish observance, involvement with the life of a community, and friendships that offer critical feedback,” Claussen wrote.

The intentional character formation offered in many Jewish schools draws on deep religious sources and history, and serves as an example of the type of community-centered character-education approach.