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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

Last week, the Kern Family Foundation invited me to give a talk to 50+ school leaders on “How Character Gives SEL Its Why.”

The foundation also provided each school leader at the convening a copy of the National Guidelines on Character & Social-Emotional Development, a Character.org publication I wrote in 2022.

The CSED National Guidelines focus on grade-appropriate cognitive and behavioral indicators for each of the four areas of character (moral, performance, intellectual, and civic) and the five SEL competencies and skills. 

There was a moment during my presentation when I was reviewing with everyone the set of indicators for Civic Character. For example, in Grade K-2, students should be able to explain “why it is important for everyone to be respectful” and “to share a time when they practiced the Golden Rule.” Students in Grades 3-5 should be able to “describe how someone they look up to exemplifies fairness and respect,” and by middle school (Grades 6-8), students should be able to describe a time “when they spoke up or took action to encourage their friends to be respectful.”

We next looked at the “respect” indicators for high school students. I read out loud what was on the page: “Present evidence to demonstrate your ability to consistently treat all people with dignity.”

The moment I said the word dignity my neurons fired up. I suddenly realized that I never defined or explained the word anywhere in the CSED National Guidelines. Perhaps another speaker would have kept going. I couldn’t. 

First, I told the group that I should have defined the term in the publication. Next, I turned to the educator sitting next to where I was standing and asked: “Luis, I need to write a blog post on dignity. Will you hold me accountable?” During the next few days, practicing the virtue of intellectual humility, I took a deep dive on what dignity means to me and how dignity could more intentionally connect to SEL and character formation. 

I’m confident that almost all schools at the lower grades emphasize students learning about and practicing empathy, the Golden Rule, and why it’s so important for everyone to work and play well with others. Moreover, I would understand why elementary schools might not use or emphasize the term dignity. 

But what about the upper grades? Do middle schools and high schools focus on the concept of dignity?

Well, certainly not in American history classes. The term “dignity” doesn’t appear in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the term wasn’t used a lot in the public sphere until the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. There, in Article 1, we learn: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The word dignity was having its coming out moment. No longer would this term be used in connection to someone’s class, status, or rank. Now the word would be used to signify something we are all born with. Dignity as a birthright.

The author Dr. Donna Hicks has written two books on dignity. In both, she explains how dignity is different from respect. Hicks argues that we need to earn a person’s respect through our actions and behaviors. Yet dignity is never earned. Rather, it’s a given. In sum, dignity is something that can never be taken from us. 

I suspect, however, that schools who do intentionally teach the concept of dignity to older students may still focus on respect and the Golden Rule. I sure did when I wrote the “respect” indicator for the CSED National Guidelines. 

But now I have a different perspective on dignity. 

First and foremost, I would love to learn whether high school educators are finding ways to equip and empower students to tap into their own dignity. What we do know is that almost all teens will inevitably face the storms of life. Moreover, according to the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, each of us has the power to choose our attitude when facing these storms of life. In other words, no one can take away our human dignity. Indeed, Frankl argues in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that dignity is at the core of our inner strength.

Yet, creating a culture of dignity in middle and high schools is not easy. Why? In part, because we are evolutionary creatures. Developmentally, we learn to navigate our world using binary distinctions. As toddlers we learn the difference between hot and cold. Day/Night. Yes/No. As we go to elementary school, we continue to make sense of the world through this binary lens. For example, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be Jewish until I grasped that some people are not Jewish. It’s at this age we begin to grasp what it means to be an American only when we learn that not everyone is an American. We also learn that boys are different from girls. In short, we begin to define ourselves through that binary lens. We discover “the other.” 

Around middle school, the binary attains its full potency when the young person begins to believe: “Who I am is better than who I’m not.” The cool kids are better than the nerds. Jocks are more popular than the coders. There is ample research showing that social hierarchies are built into our biology and that these hierarchies are often the root causes of schoolyard and digital bullying. The bullies who push someone down on the playground or make fun of someone online are expressing and reinforcing their own worth. You can almost hear the bully thinking, “I have power…and you don’t.” 

This is why teaching about dignity is so important. Without a doubt, schools need to help students of all ages regulate their emotions (“No one likes me!”). In addition, schools need to help students develop their empathy skills. But we also need to find ways to teach our students that status and rank do not define their worth. What I’ve learned is that school that are committed to embedding a culture of dignity should be creating activities and opportunities where: (1) the popular or older kids learn that their status does not make them “better” than anyone else; and (2) the less popular and younger kids learn that no one can take away their self-worth. Self-love is a dignity practice.

Finally, I also want to recognize and affirm how so many schools focus on the power of belonging. These schools are helping us crack the dignity code by believing and modeling that every student needs to feel “seen and heard.”

It’s time for me to rewrite the “fairness and respect” indicator for high school students. I now realize that it’s not enough to merely ask students to present evidence that will demonstrate their ability to “treat all people with dignity.”

I’m thinking about this revision: “Explain how you have internalized the concept of human dignity, both in terms of your own identity and your interactions with others.”

Better? Hit the mark? Is something still missing? 

I look forward to your feedback and suggestions. 

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