Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Tis the season for graduations: Supporting ethical living with graduation awards

If you want people to behave ethically, you have to reward it.

I've always been pleased and proud that Santa Clara University offers their highest student awards at graduation (the Nobilli medal for a male graduate and a St. Clare medal for a female graduate) to two students who have demonstrated the highest ethical values, character, and efforts to engage with the marginalized in order to work to make a better world both on and off campus. However, since Santa Clara is a Jesuit and Catholic university I figured that we were somewhat unique in this practice. I was pleasantly surprised at my son's middle school graduation at our local public school that the highest award given at his graduation ceremony was to someone who embodies ethical values and a college scholarship was awarded to the deserving student.

If we want to live in a more ethical world we need to start at very early ages to provide clear corrective feedback and models for ethical behavior. We also need to reward it. We often expect graduation awards that focus on academic, athletic, and artistic achievements. That's great but adding ethics and character development is important too and will hopefully become an emerging trend at schools from preschool through graduate and professional schools. Students aspiring to awards that reinforce ethical living and character development is part of a total package of efforts to support and nurture ethical living. I am grateful that my university and local public middle school is trying to accomplish this goal by rewarding students of character.

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A classic principle of learning and behavior modification is to reward behavior that you want to see continue. I tend to think that we have to find numerous and creative ways to reward character and ethical behavior and values providing models for all. If you want to see people behavior ethically and with character, we really do need to reinforce it. Graduation awards is one of many ways to do so.

How can we in our own way and within our own communities nurture, support, and reward ethical living? If we try to do so in multiple ways and from multiple angles, perhaps we'll make progress in creating a more ethical world both now and in the future.

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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