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Failing Liberty 101
How We Are Leaving Young Americans Unprepared for Citizenship in a Free Society
By William Damon
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Youth, Virtue, and the Future of Liberty in American Society
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. — Benjamin Franklin
The Founders of American democracy clearly saw the importance of a virtuous citizenry. The Founders worried that their bold experiment in human liberty would falter if the American populace chose vice over virtue. Ben Franklin put it this way: "A government can only end in despotism when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other." In Franklin's opinion, shared by Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and the philosophers who inspired them (such as John Locke and Edmund Burke), it takes a virtuous citizenry to live responsibly under conditions of liberty. "Among a people generally corrupt," Burke wrote, "liberty cannot long exist." Moreover, for liberty to flourish, it takes a devoted citizenry willing and able to participate in the governing process. What the Founders did not say, but surely implied in their statements about the importance of virtue and personal character, is that such a citizenry must be fashioned by providing its members with a sound upbringing and education during youth.
Modern-day political theorists have recognized the Founders' insights. Peter Berkowitz, for example, has written: "Liberty, as a way of life, is an achievement. This achievement demands of individuals specific virtues ... certain qualities of mind and character that do not arise spontaneously, but require education and cooperation." Franklin's concern that self-governance could be lost from neglect also has appeared in the writings of social commentators for much of the modern era. The great twentieth-century scholarly leader Robert Maynard Hutchins once wrote that "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment."
But despite such clarion warnings, the conditions necessary for sustaining a free society are not well understood in today's popular culture. Liberty is understood to signify the freedom to pursue self-centered desires without restriction — and this stunted conception is reflected in many young Americans' notions about their privileges, rights, and obligations as citizens. Many young people have never been taught anything else. Such misunderstandings by adults are passed along to the children; and the vestiges of understanding that do remain are lost in translation on their way through a leaky educational system.
Regarding popular understandings of liberty in today's society, the philosopher Jacob Needleman has written:
At the root of the American ideal of liberty is the right of every human being to search for and attend to the dictates of conscience. Political liberty means first and foremost the social conditions necessary to allow this search. ... But this ideal and right has been taken to mean merely the right to satisfy one's own subjective desires, whatever they may be, without any reference to the existence of the moral law within. In this way, the idea of liberty descends into the glorification of desire as such, which is an infantilization of its fundamental meaning.
A society that allows its young to learn nothing more than an infantilized version of that society's core ethic is placing itself at risk for eventual dissolution. We must do better, both for the well-being of the young and for the preservation of American liberty. We cannot abandon young Americans to a state of permanent moral and political infancy.
But first, to open the case that I present in this book, let us give infancy its due. I begin with an examination of the building blocks of character — the moral virtues that are present in every child at birth or shortly thereafter.
The Development of Virtue and Moral Character
In the human species, the seeds of virtue are present as early as infancy. Moral-response systems — such as outrage, self-regulation, empathy, and shame — can be observed at birth or shortly thereafter in every normal child. They provide a strong natural basis for virtue and moral character.
But this does not mean that the full development of virtuous character is assured for all individuals in society. Initially, the budding moral-response systems consist only of transient inclinations or aversions, and these rudimentary leanings alone cannot in themselves provide a sufficient basis for a virtuous life. In order to grow into stable moral commitments, these premature leanings must be informed and strengthened through education.
Education for virtue can take place in homes, schools, and common settings such as workplaces, sports teams, and religious institutions (and ideally across several of these settings in conjunction with one another). A number of combinations will work; but the education must take place somewhere if the child is to grow into a responsible member of society. Without an education that teaches clear moral standards, the child's natural virtues will atrophy over time, and the formation of the child's moral character will be placed at risk.
At present, the state of virtue among young Americans, according to prominent indicators of youth conduct, is a decidedly mixed bag. Rates of antisocial and destructive behaviors among the young have declined over the past twenty years, but this has been a decline from a very high base rate. The variability of youth behavior in present-day American society is enormous. Some young people are acting as shining examples of decency and devotion, while others are leading directionless or dissolute lives. Most disturbingly, recent studies have shown that only a minority of the young has found any moral or civic purpose to which they wish to dedicate themselves; and many express little interest in any cause beyond their own gratification. In particular, civic purpose — an interest in social policy, learning about current events and political matters, aspiring to positions of community leadership, taking citizenship responsibilities such as voting in elections seriously — comes in last among the life goals held by the present cohort of young Americans. While virtue and purpose are alive and well for many members of our younger generation, many others seem stalled on their path to mature character development. Only a small minority (in recent studies, no more than one in five) shows strong signs of making solid progress toward assuming roles as responsible citizens in our society.
This shaky situation is no accident. All of the institutions that I mentioned above — homes, schools, and community organizations of work, faith, and recreation — have come up short in their obligations to educate the young for lives of virtue. The reasons are multiple: they include a mix of unresponsive educational practices, uninformed social policies, irresponsible mass media, community disintegration, waning traditional belief systems, the dubious values of post-modern culture, and legions of homes bereft of constructive guidance. I will expound on these contributing causes in subsequent chapters of this book. For now, suffice it to say that the goal of a supportive character education for all young people has diminished as a priority in virtually every setting where they spend their time in American society.
There are, of course, some exceptions; but these are becoming increasingly rare and at odds with contemporary sensibilities. The idea that the education of the young should focus on virtue seems old fashioned, beside the point, and time wasting to many professional educators today.
In response to this dismissal of virtue as a marginal concern left over from bygone days, I raise in this book an urgent question of national interest for a country that long has stood as a bastion of human liberty. The question is whether our democracy, and the freedoms that it makes possible, can flourish in the future if we cannot manage to cultivate moral and civic virtue in a more extensive portion of our younger generation. My answer to this question, which I explicate in this book, is that I do not believe that any society that fails to develop moral character and civic purpose in its young has much future as a land of freedom and democracy. Cultivating virtue in our young is every bit as vital to preserving freedom in our society as is military strength — although it is certainly less newsworthy and less politically evocative.
The Essential Personal and Moral Virtues
Lists of essential human virtues date back at least to Aristotle, and generally such lists include both personal and moral strengths. Aristotle, for example, included courage, which is neutral in its moral significance (it can be employed for both pro- and antisocial causes), along with more benevolent qualities such as generosity, friendship, and truthfulness. The mix of personal and moral in Aristotle's accounting is consistent with the original etymological root of the term "virtue," which literally meant "strength" in the ancient Greek language. "Character" has long been considered to be the sum of a person's acquired virtues.
Contemporary psychological science has followed a similar approach in including both personal and moral strengths under the rubric of virtue. In a recent initiative, the burgeoning "positive psychology" movement has produced a catalogue of twenty-four virtues considered necessary for "authentic happiness." Among these "happiness" virtues are strengths of wisdom, such as creativity, intelligence, and love of learning; strengths of courage, such as bravery and zest; strengths of humanity, such as kindness and compassion; strengths of justice, such as fairness and cooperation; strengths of temperance, such as prudence, mercy, forbearance, and self-regulation; and strengths of transcendence, such as gratitude, hope, and faith. This highly inclusive list is intended to serve as a comprehensive set of the basic psychological strengths that can be measured, fostered, and repaired by therapy ("coaching," in positive psychology's new lexicon), should such treatment be called for.
But some scholars (myself included), prefer to reserve the term "virtue" only for the types of behavior intended to produce social good. When used in this way, the term has an inevitable moral connotation. All the studies in moral and "character" education that I refer to in this book employ the term in this way. In the body of work from moral psychology, virtues are considered to be enduring habits of good behavior that enable people to lead lives of integrity, responsibility, compassion, and honor. Such virtues may well lead to personal happiness, but that is not their defining feature: rather, the claim to "virtuousness" rests on a dedication to the social and moral good.
When writing or speaking of the kind of virtue they deemed necessary for life in a free society, the Founders of American democracy unquestionably had the social and moral good firmly in mind. In the views of Ben Franklin, George Washington, and other Founders, the good life required self-improvement — a striving toward "moral perfection" (Franklin's phrase) through the pursuit of virtue. The "pursuit of happiness" was also cited — famously — as a legitimate goal; but it is clear that the meaning of the term "happiness" during that period focused on being free to follow one's conscience and find one's God, rather than on achieving the kinds of hedonistic and materialistic rewards that have been associated with happiness in modern times.
Ben Franklin was specific about the virtues he believed were required for moral perfection: Temperance; Silence (known today as discretion); Order; Resolution (what we might call dedication or commitment); Frugality (or thrift); Industry (now termed the work ethic); Sincerity (honesty); Justice (including what we now call empathy); Moderation; Cleanliness; Tranquility (now known as emotional balance); Chastity; and Humility. Given Franklin's unique accomplishments and insights into the workings of political liberty, his list of virtues should be taken seriously by anyone concerned with the qualities necessary for a citizenry to sustain a free society. Naturally, the list reflects Franklin's personal experiences as a successful businessman and diplomat as well as his interests in social reformation. It is a collection of virtues that, if widely acquired, would make for a fair-minded, well-mannered, tolerant, and amiable citizenry. As philosopher Harvey Mansfield has commented, "Franklin's list of virtues for a free society ... might be summed up as sociability under an aura of modesty."
It is informative to examine Franklin's virtues in light of the extensive research on moral development that has been conducted in the social and psychological sciences over the centuries since he made his list. In recent years, much of this research has been driven by neurologically based efforts to locate the seat of human morality in sectors of the brain and by genetically based efforts to demonstrate that certain moral dispositions are native to the species and thus inherited. As I mentioned at the start of the chapter, showing that morality has a physiological and genetic base does not mean that character can be acquired without significant social influence. Each virtue that Franklin identifies requires both a well-directed education and sustained personal effort in order to develop into part of a fully formed moral character. And some virtues require more education and effort than others.
Some of Franklin's virtues (the ones he called Temperance, Order, Justice/empathy, and Moderation) have roots in highly evolved behavioral dispositions that are native to our species. Modern social science has named these "natural virtues" self-control, obligation, empathy, and fairness. Studies of newborns and infants using sophisticated video scanning techniques have identified behavioral precursors to each of these virtues in virtually all children born without severe brain damage. Yet these native dispositions lack social effectiveness and continuity: they require elaboration and reinforcement over the course of development if they are to not to atrophy; and they require constant practice and learning if they are to guide moral action in useful and dependable ways throughout life.
Take empathy (a significant component of Franklin's Justice) as an example. As the emotional foundation of what will later become genuine compassion, empathy can be first observed in the cries of an infant who observes another person in distress. But this instinctive response comes with no plan of action or prescription for whom to empathize with; and the responder is easily distracted. In children with backgrounds of violence and abuse, the empathic response can grow into a grotesque caricature of itself. For example, a therapist working with delinquent youth groups recorded one homicidal youngster saying that he felt brokenhearted whenever he thought about people cutting down trees for Christmas. This boy had wreaked violence on numerous people without regret, yet he experienced vestiges of empathic sadness for fallen pine trees. The annals of criminal justice are full of such cases: psychopaths who have empathic feelings for an animal or a little sister but who treat virtually everyone else with absolute callousness.
Like all the natural virtues, empathy in its mature form draws upon guidance and experience. The family in particular is the prime setting for the cultivation of the natural virtues of empathy, self-control, and obligation. The cultivation of fairness often occurs in the peer settings of play and friendship. In each of these cases, thanks to the biological dispositions of our species, the child has inherited a head start in developing the virtue. It takes the right kinds of social influences — family, peer, education, experience — plus a good deal of practice and learning to turn these natural dispositions into true virtues. But the foundations are there at birth.
Other virtues on Franklin's list (such as Industry, Frugality, Sincerity, Chastity, and Cleanliness) are more cultural, requiring a greater degree of explicit instruction and training. Industry, for example, is a virtue that is more honored in some cultural settings than others, as studies of the work ethic throughout history have shown. To date, none of the culturally driven virtues on Franklin's list has been shown to have biological roots.
As agents of culture, families, peers, and the community can foster the acquisition of the culturally driven virtues. In addition, schools, at least when they are operating well, also can play consequential roles. Industry, for example, can be engendered through family practices such as household chores, reinforced in school by regular homework assignments, and encouraged by adults and peers in the community who honor and respect the work ethic.
Excerpted from Failing Liberty 101 by William Damon. Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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