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Communities of Character

by David Brooks, New York Times

We live in an individualistic age. As Marc J. Dunkelman documents in his book “The Vanishing Neighbor,” people tend to have their close group of inner-ring family and friends and then a vast online outer-ring network of contacts, but they are less likely to be involved in middle-ring community organizations.

But occasionally I stumble across a loving, charismatic and super-tight neighborhood organization. Very often it’s a really good school.

You’d think that schools would naturally nurture deep community bonds. But we live in an era and under a testing regime that emphasizes individual accomplishments, not community cohesion. Even when schools talk about values, they tend to talk about individualistic values, like grit, resilience and executive function, not the empathy, compassion and solidarity that are good for community and the heart.

Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education asked 10,000 middle and high school students if their parents cared more about their personal achievement or whether they were kind. Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievement — individual over the group.

But there are some schools that nurture achievement precisely by building tight communities.

The Denver School of Science and Technology has an intense values-centered culture, emphasizing values like respect and responsibility. Four days a week everybody gathers for a morning meeting. Those who contribute to the community are affirmed. When students have strained the community, by being rude to cafeteria workers, for example, the rift is recognized, discussed and healed.

Last week I visited the Leaders School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which is a glowing example of community cohesion. This is a school with roughly 300 students who speak between them 22 languages. Eighty-five percent are on free and reduced lunch. Last year the graduation rate was an amazing 89 percent and every single graduate went to college. The average SAT score was 411 math and 384 verbal.

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