Education Needs to Include Intelligence and Character

We need to rethink the purpose of education.

Illustration by Tom McQuaid / Character Lab
Illustration by Tom McQuaid / Character Lab

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When you walk into the Character Lab office, the very first thing you’ll see are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Intelligence plus character — that is the true goal of education.”

The quote comes from an essay King published in the Morehouse College campus newspaper around his 18th birthday.

King opens his argument with an observation: “I too often find that most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education.” A common mistake, he says, is in seeing only one of two aims.

The more obvious goal of education is “to become more efficient,” particularly in “thinking logically and scientifically.” Today, we might say we send our kids to school to become critical thinkers. “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”

Another — perhaps less obvious — goal is to cultivate character: “But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society,” King wrote. “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Character enables you to live a life that is as good for others as it is for you. Like educators Maria Montessori and John Dewey, King saw school as an essential arena for character development.

As is so often true in life, the challenge is to resist simplistic either-or thinking and instead embrace the both-and of education.

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education [emphasis added]. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

Don’t oversimplify. The best teachers and schools see academic success and the development of character as complementary, not competitive.

Do ask your kids what they think is the purpose of education. You may discover that, like King, they are wise beyond their years.  

With grit and gratitude,

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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