It’s mid-summer and graduations at our high schools and colleges are done. If this year was like most others, graduates were told a hundred different ways that "you are the future."
I recently took a different approach by starting a commencement address with these words: "I want to talk to you about one thing that is more important than all the good grades you’ve earned, more important than all the degrees you’ll accumulate, and indeed, more important than all the knowledge you’ll ever absorb in your lifetimes. It’s something over which every responsible, thinking adult has total, personal control and yet millions of people every year sacrifice it for very little. It will not only define and shape your future, it will put both a concrete floor under it and an iron ceiling over it. It’s what the world will remember you for more than probably anything else. It’s not your looks, it’s not your talents, it’s not your ethnicity and ultimately, it may not even be anything you ever say. I’m talking about your character."
Twenty years ago, school officials in Conyers, Ga., discovered that one of their basketball players who had played 45 seconds in the first of the school’s five post-season games had actually been scholastically ineligible. They returned the state championship trophy the team had just won a few weeks before. If they had simply kept quiet, probably no one else would have ever known about it and they could have retained the trophy.
The team and the town, dejected though they were, rallied behind the school’s decision. The coach said, "We didn’t know he was ineligible at the time … but you’ve got to do what’s honest and right and what the rules say. I told my team that people forget the scores of the games; they don’t ever forget what you’re made of."
In the minds of most, it didn’t matter that the championship title was forfeited. The coach and the team were still champions — in more ways than one.
Character is what the coach and the players in Conyers possessed. People like me who have never met them will be telling that story for a long, long time. People who do know them surely must admire and look up to them with great pride and respect.
A deficit of character is revealed every time somebody knows the right thing to do, but neither defends it nor does it because it might result in discomfort or inconvenience.
When a person spurns his conscience and fails to do what he knows is right, he subtracts from his character. When he evades his responsibilities, succumbs to temptation, foists his problems and burdens on others, or fails to exert self-discipline, he subtracts from his character. When he is so self-absorbed he ceases to be of service to others unless there’s something in it for him, he subtracts from his character. When he attempts to reform the world without reforming himself first, he subtracts from his character.
A person’s character is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of his choices. You can’t choose your height or race or many other physical traits, but you fine tune your character every time you decide right from wrong and what you personally are going to do about it. Your character is further defined by how you choose to interact with others and the standards of speech and conduct you practice.
It is on this matter that the fate of liberty has always depended. A free society flourishes when people pursue honor, honesty and propriety at whatever the cost in material wealth, social status or popularity. It descends into barbarism when people abandon what’s right in favor of self-gratification at the expense of others; when lying, cheating and stealing are winked at instead of shunned. If you do not govern yourself, you will be governed.
Character means that there are no matters too small to handle the right way. Cutting corners because "it won’t matter much" or "no one will notice" still knocks you down a notch and can easily become a slippery slope.
In history, the men and women we most admire and best remember are those whose character inspires us to personal excellence. Academic achievement is always laudable but superlative character will always take you farther.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational organization headquartered in Midland, Mich. This commentary draws heavily from a commencement address he delivered in Missouri on May 21, 2006. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.