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The Moral Lives
of Children and the
Moral Life of the Nation
There is much talk these days about the character of America and its people. A great deal of it is laced with anxiety.
Children, inevitably, are the centerpiece of these discussions. It is not just that children figure so prominently in the various measures of social decline—violent crime, drug use, illegitimacy, and so on. The reason most often given is the overused cliché that "children are the future."
This explanation is certainly true, but it is also banal and incomplete.
Children are indeed a symbol of the nation's uncertain future, but we should not imagine that altruism on their behalf, or even concern for society's future, animates this discussion. One need not listen very long to realize that children have become a code for speaking about ourselves; a linguistic device through which we talk about our own desires, commitments, and ideals, and the world we wish to create. Young people thus get caught in a tug of war between adults who have contending ideas about "what is really in their best interest." When this happens, they become one more ideological weapon used on behalf of competing visions of America's future direction; a tool with which competing parties and interest groups leverage political power. In claiming to put children first, we often place them last—or at least subordinate to ideology.
Still, we all share an awareness that profound change is taking place in our society and that children reflect, promote, and bear the consequences of that change. And so it is no surprise that nearly everyone in America acknowledges the need for "values education." Polls show that about 85 percent of all public school parents want moral values taught in school; about 70 percent want education to develop strict standards of "right and wrong." It is understandable, then, that the call for moral education finds a large and receptive audience. Yet the massive billion-dollar "values industry" that has emerged in response is not just a sign of the demand that exists, it is also a measure of the intensity of our fear.
Most of this industry is oriented toward children. Its premise is simple enough: if a tide of moral decadence is overtaking American society, then we must stem that tide by cultivating virtue and character among its people, especially among young people. To this end, we have invested much money and an extraordinary expenditure of human energy—in books, articles, journals, professional associations, congressional committees, legislative action, and so on. Though conservatives tend to be more vocal about the problem, the enterprise is by no means their exclusive domain. Moderates and liberals have claimed an equal stake in the effort. And this values industry is merely one part of a conglomerate of interests, activities, and institutions given to the moral development of children and the strengthening of the moral character of citizens more broadly.
Does character really matter?
The collective wisdom of the ages would say it matters a great deal. In both classical and biblical cultures—civilizations that have been so deeply formative to our own—people well understood there to be a direct association between the character of individuals and the well-being of the society as a whole. Individual character was essential to decency, order, and justice within public life. Without it, hardship was not far off.
The matter of character and social welfare was especially consequential in the case of rulers in both biblical and classical civilizations. As the wisdom writer wrote, "when the righteous are in power, the people rejoice, but they groan when the wicked hold office." Indeed, much of the history of the ancient Hebrews can be told as a story of blessing for faithfulness to God—abiding by God's standard of holiness—and punishment for abandoning those standards. "See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse—the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known." Due to the intervention of such faithful witnesses as Moses and Joshua, God brought the children of Israel into the promised land, driving out or destroying their enemies. Yet when they were disobedient, as when they created and worshipped the golden calf God punished. Under the righteous leadership of the Judges—Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, and Samson—Israel would enjoy long stretches of peace and prosperity. At the death of each of the Judges, however, Israel reverted to idolatry and immorality and the nation suffered for it—until a new Judge was chosen. Under such kings as David, Solomon, Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Josiah, Israel enjoyed good fortune. Yet due to the defiance of Jeroboam, Reheboam, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Ahab, Jehoram, and Ahaziah, the ancient Jews suffered. The same story is told through the witness of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Nahum, and Zechariah. When Israel reflected the justice and holiness of God's character in its collective life, it was blessed; when it rebelled, the nation was disciplined.
The association between individual character and collective well-being was equally clear to the ancient Greek philosophers. In the Republic, Plato held up character as the defining qualification of the ruling class. This was for the simple reason that rulers with character were "most likely to devote their lives to doing what they judged to be in the interest of the community." Social disintegration was inevitable if rulers failed in this regard. As Plato put it, "the community suffers nothing very terrible if its cobblers are bad and become degenerate and pretentious; but if the Guardians of the laws and state, who alone have the opportunity to bring it good government and prosperity become a mere sham, then clearly it is completely ruined."
This varied but powerful legacy framed the sensibilities of the Enlightenment intellectuals so influential to the political radicals intent on overthrowing the ancien régime. The French philosopher Montesquieu, for example, reiterated the case to his generation and those that followed when he observed that "the corruption of each government almost always begins with that of its principles." Nowhere was this more true than in a democratic regime. In his monumental L'Esprit des Lois in 1748, Montesquieu reasoned that "there need not be much integrity for a monarch or despotic government to maintain or sustain itself." In these cases, the power of the prince through the laws he imposed was sufficient to maintain social order. However, in a popular state, power as raw as this was not enough. Rather, the essential ingredient for true justice and order was virtue. Its absence in such regimes, he believed, would be catastrophic. "When that virtue ceases," he wrote, "ambition enters those hearts that can admit it and avarice enters them all."
The American revolutionaries, locating sovereignty not in a monarch or a government but in the people, found the need for character residing there too. They saw strength of character as essential to the vitality of their experiment in democracy. "The steady character of our countrymen," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1801, "is a rock to which we may safely moor." The significance he gave to people's character was an echo of all he knew from the lessons of history. In his own words, "it is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution." James Madison was of a similar conviction. "Is there no virtue among us?" he asked. "If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of Government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of Government will secure liberty or happiness without any form of virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea." For Jefferson and Madison, this was a basic article of democratic faith. Citizens should "be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments, proportioned indeed, but irremissible." Such were "the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order and good government." Two generations later, Alexis de Tocqueville toured the American countryside and discovered that the hopes of the American founders had been provisionally realized—virtue was, in fact, central to the vitality of American democratic life. "These habits of restraint," he said, "are found again in political society and singularly favor the tranquillity of the people as well as the durability of the institutions they have adopted." Yet he too understood the precarious constitution of embodied virtue: "How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened?"
It is not surprising that we trace the problems we see today to a weakening of moral commitment so central to character. History and philosophy both suggest to us that the flourishing of character rooted in elevated virtues is essential to justice in human affairs; its absence, a measure of corruption and a portent of social and political collapse, especially in a democracy. The importance of character is a part of the moral imagination we Americans have inherited, a sensibility reinforced by the lessons of history. It is this sensibility that continues to frame our understanding of character today. Commentators abound who catalog the wide range of public problems in the contemporary world "as arising out of a defect of character formation." Character matters, we believe, because without it, trust, justice, freedom, community, and stability are probably impossible.
Character and the Good Society
However one may view the present state of America, the point on which nearly everyone agrees is that American culture is changing in profound and often unsettling ways and that morality and character have something to do with it. How, then, are we to understand these changes? How does character fit in?
This question is as old as social science itself and it remains central to its mission. The great French social philosopher of the late nineteenth century, Emile Durkheim, was one of many who made this his life's passion. What, he asked, are the terms by which life—individual and collective, public and private—will be ordered and sustained in a world changing so rapidly? Particularly under the conditions of the modern and now "postmodern" world, is a society that is merely decent, not to mention just, even possible? If so, how and on what terms?
In our time, Durkheim's passion has become everyone's passion. We are restless because the questions are not merely academic. The stakes are tangible, immediate, and consequential.
This book stands in this tradition of inquiry: what are the terms by which American society will be ordered and sustained? After all our effort to make a good society, what are the consequences of our actions—intended or unintended—for individuals and communities alike?
The Demise of Character Within
the Larger Dynamics of Society and History
At one level, the passing of character in our day is a consequence of larger, impersonal forces of history within our particular society, in which any one individual is mostly a passive participant. The term "character," as Warren Sussman has argued, achieved its greatest currency in America in the nineteenth century. It was frequently associated with words like "honor," "reputation," "integrity," "manners," "golden deeds," "duty," " citizenship," and, not least, "manhood." Character was always related to an explicitly moral standard of conduct, oriented toward work, building, expanding, achieving, and sacrifice on behalf of a larger good—all those "producer values" embraced within Max Weber's famous phrase, "the Protestant ethic."
But as the American economy began to shift from a focus on industrial production to one of mass consumption in the early decades of the twentieth century, the psychological and ethical requirements placed upon an individual began to change as well. With growing abundance, more emphasis could be placed upon accumulation, leisure, and the cultivation of personal preferences. While the word "character" did not disappear, an alternative vision of the self emerged. This vision was captured by the word "personality"—a word that first appeared in the late eighteenth century but only gained wide currency in the early twentieth. The concept of personality reflected a self no longer defined by austerity but by emancipation for the purposes of expression, fulfillment, and gratification. Here too the social role reflected in the word "personality" shifted from achievement to performance. The advice manuals so popular among the middle classes emphasized poise, charm, appearance, even voice control—all given to the task of impressing and influencing others. In a culture of character, Sussman argued, the public demanded a correlation between achievement and fame; in the emerging culture of personality, that requirement was absent.
In sum, changing ideas of the self reflect changing social structures, structures that impose different requirements upon the role and presentation of the self. The older ideas of the self surrounding the character ideal suited the personal and social needs of an older political economy; the newer ideas reflected in the concept of personality emerged because they better fit the demands of a developing consumer society.
Character and Moral Imagination
But there is much more to be said about all of this. A discussion of character is not only about the kind of self produced in a particular kind of society but about the kind of moral understandings and moral commitments that are possible. Under present historical circumstances, what are the frameworks of our moral imagination? What are the vistas of our moral horizon, and how have they changed? To seek a good society is first a matter of what can be morally envisioned. Only then is it a matter of what can be realized within social institutions and in the lives of real people. To address this matter, then, we must go beyond a discussion of political economy and its modal types of selves to an examination of the changing nature of the moral culture—to the content of moral understanding in contemporary American society, the way it is produced and passed on to succeeding generations.
The Elementary Forms of the Moral Life:
The Argument in Brief
On the face of it, these questions are rather vague; too vague, I think, to elicit a constructive answer. So for analytical purposes, I will focus on a particular element of the question that is especially amenable to practical investigation, namely, an examination of the moral instruction of children. I concentrate on children and the lessons they are taught for reasons suggested by Durkheim himself. In brief, he argued that by examining a phenomenon at its incipient stages of development, one has the opportunity to learn about the phenomenon as a more complex reality. So it is, I would contend, with moral development and moral instruction—the entire endeavor to cultivate character and its attending virtues within succeeding generations. By looking carefully at the ways in which we mediate moral understanding to children, we may learn much about the kind of society we live in and will pass on to future generations. The point bears emphasis. My concern with moral education is not because of any relationship it may have on the development of morality in young people. In fact, as we will see, most moral education programs are astonishingly ineffective at this level. Rather, the significance of moral education is found in its articulation of the moral culture we adults idealize. It is a mirror of the moral culture we prize and thus seek to pass on to succeeding generations.
The Paradox of Inclusion
The heart of our inquiry is character, its attending virtues, and their cultivation. We say to ourselves, if we only reach our children while they are young, establish character early on, we can meet the present challenge; we only need to educate our children better. This reasoning is not exceptional. The institutions that educate, schools not least among them, have self-consciously taken on this responsibility for generations.
The problem is that schools—and not just schools, but other institutions that mediate moral understanding to children—have become part of the problem. Indeed, the argument of this book is that for all of our genuine and abiding concern with the moral life of children and the moral life of the nation, the strategies we have devised aggravate rather than ameliorate the problem. Rather than restore character and its attending moral ideals, they are complicit in destroying them.
How can this be?
Consider the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We Americans see all around us the fragmentation of our public life, our increasing inability to speak to each other through a common moral vocabulary, the emptying loss of an unum holding together a complex plurality of people and cultures. Against this we feel a powerful urge to establish some manner of cohesiveness in the morality we pass on to children and a stability in the character we seek to build within them. Yet this is not just a private affair. It is a social task that takes place in public. It requires cooperation. Thus we strive to be inclusive, taking great pains not to offend anyone by imposing beliefs and commitments that might make people "uncomfortable." This requirement of inclusiveness and civility is reinforced by the dominant educational establishment and the state through their policies of nondiscrimination.
This tension between accommodating diversity in public life and establishing a working agreement in our moral life is a defining feature of our national life; indeed, our collective history. The problem is where our long-standing aspiration to sustain some inclusive moral order now leads us. Three broad strategies have evolved in response to this conundrum.
The Psychological Strategy
The first strategy is a pedagogy based upon shared method, namely, the ethical neutrality of secular psychology. Its working assumption is that all of us possess an innate capacity for moral goodness; character resides within each of us, largely independent of the relationships we have or the communities into which we are born. These endowments only need to be coaxed out and developed within the personality. Importantly, within the psychological strategy, the tools for understanding moral development have become the means by which morality is to be imparted. Because it grounds much of its perspective in the insights of developmental and educational psychology, it operates with the pretension of scientific objectivity. Its appeal is the fantasy of political and religious neutrality. Its conceit is that it benefits everyone and it offends no one.
The Neoclassical Strategy
The neoclassical strategy advocates a pedagogy based upon shared virtues, namely the classic virtues of Western civilization. Both biblical and humanistic in origin, the neoclassical strategy articulates moral ideals that have been distilled through the generations: honesty, integrity, perseverance, tolerance, and so on. Its claim to universality is based upon the observation that these virtues represent the most esteemed attributes of our civilization, agreed upon and firmly established through the ages. It is their endurance over time that makes these virtues exemplary. Here, though, apart from the recognition of the potential for virtuous behavior, no assumption is made about the native capacity for individuals to exemplify these qualities. Quite the opposite. Rather, the virtues must be explicitly cultivated.
The Communitarian Strategy
A third strategy for responding to the need for an inclusive moral vocabulary is a pedagogy based on shared experiences, namely experiences that come from life together. The communitarian strategy is distinct in its recognition that the practical routines in social life influence the formation of moral understanding. The most pragmatic of the three, this strategy emphasizes the formative character of strong civic institutions, such as schools, local government, and philanthropic activity in generating an ethic of cooperation. It grounds its claims to inclusivity and universality in the ideals of democratic life and social consensus.
* * *
These strategies are not always at odds with each other. Indeed, in practice many of the distinctions between them disappear altogether. Even so, at points they define approaches to the moral life that are mutually exclusive.
Excerpted from THE DEATH OF CHARACTER by JAMES DAVISON HUNTER. Copyright © 2000 by James Davison Hunter. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||The Moral Lives of Children and the Moral Life of the Nation||3|
|2||Character and Culture||15|
|3||The Early Modern Regime and Its Transformation||31|
|4||The Progressive Turn in Moral Education||55|
|Excursus: The Crisis of Character ... That Isn't||79|
|5||The Psychological Regime||81|
|6||The Neoclassical and Communitarian Backlash||107|
|7||The Ambivalence Within Faith Communities||129|
|Parting Observations: Moral Education and the Triumph of the Therapeutic||146|
|8||The Impotence of Contemporary Moral Education||151|
|Excursus: Moral Cultures and Their Consequences||157|
|9||Lessons in Subjectivism||177|
|10||Leading Children Beyond Good and Evil||205|
|11||The Death of Character||221|
|Postscript: Democracy and Moral Education||228|