Does Character Matter?: Essays on Opportunity and the American Dream

Does Character Matter?: Essays on Opportunity and the American Dream

by Richard V. Reeves

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Richard Reeves introduces this collection of short essays with a challenge: “I defy you to find a richer set of writings on the philosophical, empirical, and practical issues raised by a focus on character, and in particular its relationship to questions of opportunity.” The evidence? The works of sixteen thoughtful skeptics of and enthusiasts for the public endeavor of character cultivation. The authors in this collection provide differing political perspectives to give at least equal weight to the moral dimensions of character as well as strong demands to honor individual free will and individual development. This collection includes essays that draw attention to the gendered nature of character formation; stress the importance of culture and social norms; and explain the impact of chronic stress in the early years. Still others argue that the construction of a policy agenda for the cultivation of character poses a stark challenge to the partisan culture of contemporary politics, but may also alleviate it by reinvigoratingcommunity life. As Reeves writes, don’t take his word for it. Read the essays and see for yourself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815727477
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 68
File size: 301 KB

About the Author

Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow in Economic Studies, policy director of the Center on Children and Families, and editor-in-chief of the Social Mobility Memos blog. His research focuses on social mobility, inequality, and family change. Before joining Brookings, he was director of strategy to the deputy prime minister in the United Kingdom.

Read an Excerpt

Does Character Matter?

Essays on Opportunity and the American Dream

By Richard V. Reeves

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2748-4


Skills and Scaffolding


Mainstream economic models treat individuals as passive vessels into which human capital investments are poured in the hope of boosting cognitive abilities. The persistence of this approach, most clearly articulated by Becker and Tomes, is frustrating given recent progress in understanding the complex dynamics of skill development. Too much emphasis continues to be placed on one side of the human capital coin—namely cognitive skills, variously equated with IQ and scores on achievement tests—to the detriment of character skills.

In the Becker-Tomes model, the only limitations on investments in the human capital of children by parents come in the form of credit constraints and genetic inheritance. And childhood is typically treated as a single period, during which any investments are equally productive.

The focus in the traditional model is misleading. Character skills matter as much as cognitive skills. Returns on investments made at different stages in a child's development result in different returns. Credit constraints are much less important than parenting. And, far from being passive receptacles, children develop in the very process of learning, with implications for subsequent skill development.

The latest literature, summarized in my paper with Stefano Mosso, establishes eight important facts:

1. Character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills. A multiplicity of skills is needed for success in life. The power of personality, or character, has been demonstrated in numerous studies in addition to the longer-established power of cognitive traits like IQ and scores on achievement tests. If anything, character strengths matter more.

2. Important skills are not innate "traits" solely acquired by genetic inheritance. This is not a question of semantics: skills, or capacities to function, can be both acquired and developed. Both cognitive and non-cognitive skills can be shaped and change over the life cycle. This suggests new and productive avenues for public policy.

3. For skill development, timing matters. There are both sensitive and critical periods for the formation of skills. Sensitive periods are those periods where investment is especially productive. Critical periods are now-or-never periods, when investment is essential since investment at other stages yields no return. Particular investment strategies (policies) differ in their effectiveness at different stages of childhood.

4. The early years are the most effective period for investments in both cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Humans are most malleable, flexible and able to learn and be imprinted by parents and culture during their first years of life. Interventions during these years are therefore likely to yield the best results, as evaluations of quality early years programs, including the Perry Preschool Program, demonstrate.

5. Successful adolescent interventions largely operate through promoting character skills, since cognitive skills tend to be solidified before adolescence.

6. Skills beget skills. The benefit of an investment in human capital depends in part on the existing level of skills—a phenomenon that economists call static complementarity. So, more motivated children benefit the most from additional investments. But in addition, investments today increase the stock of future skills, which in turn increases the return to future investments—a phenomenon known as dynamic complementarity. This is one reason early investments have high returns: they make future investments more productive. Narrowly focused policies risk failing to capture these synergisms in the expression and development of skills.

7. The development of skills takes place within a vital "scaffolding." Successful investment strategies at all stages of the life cycle engage the child and investors (parent, teacher, mentor) in an interactive process. Scaffolding consists of an adaptive strategy that recognizes the current capacities of the child (trainee) and guides him or her to further learning without too much frustration. Activities are tailored to the individual child's current ability—it must be neither too hard nor too easy—in order to keep them in the "zone of proximal development," the level of difficulty at which the child can learn the most. Good schools, preschools and apprenticeship programs do what good parents do: engage the child actively within the right scaffolding for their skill development.

8. Credit constraints are not very important. There is a strong empirical relationship between educational attainment and parental income. However, parental income is a proxy for many attributes of the parental environment. The causal evidence of an importance role for credit constraints is weak. Parenting matters much more than parental income.

Our knowledge of the process of skills development has advanced rapidly in recent years. Policymaking, however, lags far behind. It is time to bring the development of policy up to date with the development of empirical knowledge. This is not an academic exercise: skills foster social inclusion and promote economic and social mobility, economic productivity, and well-being. Skills give agency to people to shape their lives, to create new skills. Skills lie at the very center of human flourishing.

For one thing, the powerful role of parents, families, and general social environments in shaping skills must be integrated into policy formation. The engagement of parents, in particular, is central to the creation of the right environment—the correctly constructed scaffolding—for developing both stronger cognitive abilities and character skills.

Current debates about inequality focus on end results, rather than early investments. Redistribution is therefore seen as the main vehicle for promoting economic opportunity and social mobility. A fuller understanding of the dynamics of skill development suggests that pre-distribution, in terms of ameliorative public policy to level the opportunities for learning, would be an economically efficient and socially fair alternative to redistribution.


Character Is Experience


Much of the modern debate about equal opportunity has been taken up with the following question: which elements of a person's successes and failures are the result of her inner abilities or inner character, and which are the result, instead, of experience—in particular, the advantages and disadvantages the person soaked up from her family, school, and society?

In general, conservatives insist that inner abilities and character are most of the story. Liberals insist that it's mostly social advantages and disadvantages. But both sides agree that this is the right question.

And both sides are wrong.

There is no such thing as inner ability or character that sits separate and apart from experience. Every experience we have, every advantage or disadvantage, is filtered through the particular character and other traits of the person who experiences it. And all of those traits are themselves a product of what has come before. In other words: We are all sedimentary creatures. Our abilities and disabilities, our preferences and values, and our character traits all arise through layer upon layer of dynamic interaction between self and environment that build us, gradually over time, into the people we are.

All this is unsettling for a certain type of egalitarian. One of the more thoroughgoing strands of egalitarian thought in contemporary political theory is called luck egalitarianism. The idea is that society ought to do its best to eliminate the effects of brute luck on a per son's prospects, so that where she ends up in life depends on her own decisions—and her own character—rather than on the vicissitudes of chance. There is much that is appealing about this ideal. But its core turns out to be hollow. When we strip away the effects of luck, such as the luck of where a person grew up, the luck of where and to whom she was born, and so on, we strip away her character, too.

The current conversation about character is in many respects a welcome departure. The fundamental premise of the Character & Opportunity Project at Brookings is almost certainly correct, and important: character is an important factor that influences how well people do at various important junctures in life when they face particular challenges. It seems likely that character traits therefore affect many people's socioeconomic trajectories. It will be useful to develop a clearer picture of which character traits matter when—and how those character traits are built.

But as this research agenda proceeds, we ought to keep in mind, as a cautionary tale, Americans' long and surprisingly unilluminating debate about the origins of ability. From the early promise of IQ testing—the shattered hope that scientists might isolate some inner variable, invariant with age or schooling or life experience—through the meltdown of the Bell Curve, Americans have found highly seductive the idea that if something about a person's mind shows up in a scientific test, it is probably inborn. Our embrace of this odd premise seems firmest when images are involved. If people differ in a manner that is visible on a bright and colorful MRI, we tend to conclude that the difference is deep, probably innate. This is just laziness on our part. We would never think this way of any organ besides the brain. When you measure the muscles of professional athlete, you are obviously observing the result of a lifetime of training and experience. The brain is no different.

That is not to say that every brain will react the same way to every experience. We are all different. But our differences are not in any simple way innate. There is no way, through any test or scan or other device, to isolate any hidden core of the self that is immune from the interactive process by which each of us is built.

Lately in the ability debate, the twin study has emerged as an ostensible trump card. By comparing identical with fraternal twins, some hope to isolate the component of the variation of a given variable that is hereditary from the component that is environmental. But those who tout this work tend not to say what philosophers of science know: the range of variation of any outcome is a function of the range of variation of the inputs. The more similar the range of environments (with twin studies, it's often relatively narrow), the larger the purportedly separate contribution of genetics appears. Whenever the environment changes, the supposedly separate contribution of genes narrows. In the end, heredity and environment make no independent contributions to our abilities; they are not really separate factors at all.

Let us avoid making the same mistakes in the study of character that we are only beginning to recover from in the study of ability. Everyone knows that some experiences "build character." Researchers are now beginning to show, in a more rigorous way, how some experiences, especially some forms of trauma, shape aspects of people's character down to the level of biochemical and genetic activity. (See Ross Thompson's contribution to this collection.) What we need is a research agenda that will help us better understand how these processes of interaction work, and which ones matter—and in the case of the more pathological processes, how they might be interrupted.

In other words, we need to learn which character traits matter in which settings and how to build those traits. That research agenda would have policy-guiding implications. And it would avoid miring us once again in those ultimately nonsensical questions Americans seem to love—about just how much of the winners' winnings and the losers' losses are due to the cards of ability and character that we imagine we were permanently dealt before the game began.


Free Will Is the Missing Link between Character and Opportunity


The standard view of today's social reformers is that building character plus building opportunity will break the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. I think this view, while laudable and a big improvement over the failed strategy of merely building opportunity, is still seriously incomplete. The missing link is that good character can take advantage of opportunity only by free will, and free will only works through future-mindedness. This view sounds quaint to twenty-first century ears and so is in need of a history and a justification.

Why did science give up the notion of free will? Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827), a French mathematician of the Enlightenment, postulated that if we knew the position and momentum of every particle in the universe at one instant only, we could then predict the entire future of the universe as well as postdict the entire past. When the deterministic claims of Darwin for biology, Marx for sociology and politics, and Freud for psychology are hammered on to Laplace's superstructure, this makes for a pretty imposing edifice—an edifice that is a secular version of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and just as pointedly renders any belief in human choice nonsensical. Is it any wonder that so many educated people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries began to believe that they were prisoners of their past, doomed to be frog-marched into their predestined futures by the accidents of their environment and their personal histories?

Actually it is. First, because the argument is much looser than it appears, and second because Laplace faced venerable intellectual forces arrayed on the opposing side. The nineteenth century American mind did not think much of historical determinism. Quite the contrary.

The educated nineteenth century American mind believed deeply, and for reasons not at all frivolous, in two intimately related psychological doctrines: free will and character. It was the first doctrine, free will, and all its buttresses that were arrayed against Laplace and his allies. The modern history of free will begins with the liberal Dutch Protestant Jacob Arminius (1560–1609). In opposition to Luther and Calvin, Arminius claims that humans have free will and can participate in their own election to grace. This was dubbed the "Arminian Heresy" since grace was supposed to come freely only from God. The heresy then became widespread through the charismatic, evangelical preaching of John Wesley (1703–1791).

The English founder of Methodism, Wesley preached that humans have free will and using free will, each of us can actively participate in attaining their own salvation by doing good works. Wesley's stunning sermons, heard through the cities, towns, and villages of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and in the American Colonies, made Methodism a strong and popular religion by the early part of the nineteenth century. Free will entered popular American consciousness, and almost all forms of American Christianity—even Lutheran and Calvinist—came to embrace it. Ordinary people no longer saw themselves as passive vessels waiting to be filled with grace. Ordinary human life could be improved. Ordinary people could better themselves. The first half of the nineteenth century became the great age of social reform—the second great awakening. The Evangelical religion of the American frontier was intensely individualistic. Prayer meetings climaxed with the drama of the choice of Christ.

There was no better soil than nineteenth century America for this doctrine to root and grow and flower. Rugged individualism, the idea that all men were created equal, the endless frontier along which the waves of immigrants could find freedom and riches, the institution of universal schooling, the idea that criminals could be rehabilitated, the freeing of the slaves, the drive to women's suffrage, and the idealization of the entrepreneur, are all manifestations of how seriously the nineteenth century mind took free will—before Darwin, Marx, and Freud threw cold water on it—and how little it cared for the idea that we are prisoners of the past.

This led to an uncomfortable standoff. On the one hand, the religious and political traditions of America embraced free will and everyday experience seemed to display it in hundreds of small ways. On the other hand the bulky edifice of science seems to demand that you give up the notion. So by the end of the 20th century, educated Americans were talking out of both sides of their mouths about freedom and choice. On the one hand, free will is integral to political discourse (e.g., "the will of the people," "responsibility," "I will return character to the White House") and to ordinary discourse (e.g., "Would you mind putting your cigarette out?" "Would you rather go to the movies or watch television?"). On the other hand, tough-minded scientific argument excludes it. This exclusion has crept into legal decisions ("mitigating circumstances," "not guilty by reason of insanity"), and most importantly into the way most educated people think about their own past.


Excerpted from Does Character Matter? by Richard V. Reeves. Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction RICHARD V. REEVES, 1,
Skills and Scaffolding JAMES HECKMAN, 2,
Character Is Experience JOSEPH FISHKIN, 6,
Free Will Is the Missing Link between Character and Opportunity MART IN E.P. SELIGMAN, 10,
Conscientiousness: A Primer BRENT ROBERTS, 15,
Chronic Adversity Shapes Character ROSS A. THOMPSON, 20,
Responsible Parenting: A Test of Character ISABEL V. SAWHILL, 24,
Gendered Character JEN LEXMOND, 28,
Women, Character, and Competition CARMIT SEGAL, 32,
Cultures Build Character STUART BUTLER, 36,
Grit and Community MARC DUNKELMAN, 40,
Schools of Character DOMINIC A.A. RANDOLPH, 43,
Morality before Performance MARVIN BERKOWITZ, 48,
Authority and Morality Build Character LAWRENCE M. MEAD, 52,
We Need Empathy, Too AMITAI ETZIONI, 56,
Character Education: A Cautionary Note MIKE ROSE, 60,
The Thorny Politics of Mobility LANAE ERICKSON HATALSKY, 64,

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