Marvin Berkowitz is awarded national honor

BY VICTORIA SIEGEL

SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Marvin Berkowitz’s years of work in the field of character education were recently honored by the Character Education Partnership (CEP) in Washington D.C. On Oct. 26, Berkowitz received the prestigious Sanford N. McDonnell Lifetime Achievement Award during the partnership’s annual conference.

“Marvin has made a significant contribution to the field of character education,” Merle Schwartz, Ed.D., director of education and research at the CEP, said. “He has taken the topic and added to the knowledge base and exemplified best practices.” Schwartz adds that Berkowitz received this honor because he has written a lot on the subject, speaks often about character education, was part of CEP’s early developments in creating the nonprofit organizations, and has served on the board as well as the education advisory committee.

“In the opinion of the committee, which is composed of all the former recipients of this award,” Sanford N. McDonnell, for whom the award is named, said, “it felt that Marvin is without a doubt one of the most talented experts on character education in this country. He has served the movement very well.” McDonnell says that Berkowitz has made a tremendous impact in the St. Louis community through his work with the public schools as well as the colleges. “He has worked very hard with the College of Education [at the University of Missouri-St. Louis] to incorporate character education into the student teaching curriculum.”

Berkowitz, who is the Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), became interested in the field as a graduate student in developmental psychology. “I wanted to know how kids become good people,” Berkowitz explained. He spent his post-doctoral work at Harvard University and along the way he started focusing on schools and families. Then he started doing work on parenting. He learned through scientific knowledge that he could help kids develop well by mostly working with the schools.

Berkowitz defines character education as a set of psychological characteristics that allows and motivates an individual to do the right thing and gives an individual the ability to reason between right and wrong. “It’s the values you hold, your moral emotions, your sense of moral self,” he said. “It’s your conscious, your ability to empathize … all the pieces of psychology that allow you to do the right thing.” Examples in popular culture of others who exhibit good character are Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, and Abraham Lincoln. He also includes Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) and Pete Seeger, who has spent his whole life fighting for the underdog.

The results of Berkowitz’s work have been seen in the various schools with which he’s worked. For example, Maplewood/Richmond Heights had a serious teenage pregnancy issue 10 years ago. Now, after having gone through character education training, the school has virtually wiped out this is problem. The Fox School District also went through the training and Ridgewood Middle School is winning state recognition for its grades; before the training, the grades were low and attendance was a problem.

Berkowitz believes there is a relationship between character education and Judaism because of the whole sense of justice and moral tradition. “Tikkun olam, tzedaka … is all part of character education,” Berkowitz explained. “We’re socializing each generation to be generous and to have a social consciousness.”

Sign up for Your Morning Light