It’s time for another school year to start. Last spring’s high
school and college graduates are off to new lives, new challenges, new
adventures. 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
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
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
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public
Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.