Can We Actually Teach Character Anymore?

It’s Saturday morning, my time for catching up on things, for some reading and reflection. I’ve been on the road so much lately, I have not attended to the news as carefully as I would like. But the news this morning is depressing. There is no better word for it. Washington seems locked in an utter paralysis of inaction. People are revolting in the streets, from the Tea Party objections about overspending by our government, to students in California making claims of oppression because of tuition hikes.

But one huge pattern of deep discouragement for me is the various scandals among business leaders, politicians, scientists, religious leaders, and sports figures. It seems so endless. We seem to shrug our shoulders and walk away anymore. We hardly know what to say.

Christopher Buckley has a piece in The Wall Street Journal this morning about all of this. He ends on quite a cynical note, quoting a fictitious authority on the reasons behind all this scandalous behavior. In so many of our leaders, he says, “There remains a surplus of testosterone once they have reached the top. And it spills over, often with unfortunate, or even calamitous, effect.”

I like the vernacular of Buckley’s 18-year-old son much better: “Dudes, what were you thinking?”

It’s so hard to write about this discouraging pattern in our society. We hesitate because none of us is perfect. Of course. We can’t stand self-righteous casting of stones. We hesitate because being judgmental is an ultimate violation of politically correct notions of tolerance. But what’s up with all of this fudging of data, cheating on one’s spouse, stealing and squandering other peoples’ money, taking exotic trips (bribes) for votes — and in the end lying about it all? Can’t we say something about these things?

In the end, what gets us most is the hypocrisy of the posturing that goes on, so many folks posing as paragons of virtue and integrity and righteousness and champions of the poor — and then hidden ugly facts of their lives erupt.

Buckley’s notion that too much testosterone is the root of the problem is too much the solution of a behaviorist for me. For me, the roots are more deeply cultural. If we can’t teach character in our schools and universities, go figure, character will disappear from the culture.

Ten years ago the sociologist of religion, James Davison Hunter, wrote a penetrating book called The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. He says that “character matters, we believe, because without it, trust, justice, freedom, community, and stability are probably impossible.” And that’s true. But Hunter goes on to say that “character is dead. Attempts to revive it will yield little. Its time has passed. . . . the social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed.”

Wow, now that’s discouraging.

The key to Hunter’s conclusions is the glaring fact that we are not guided in our society anymore by a narrative of what is true and good and beautiful. We can no longer teach character in our schools because there is no guiding story about what is right and wrong. There is no source to which we can turn, no authority to which we can yield, out of respect, no map to guide us in our teaching.

“Implicit in the word ‘character,’” says Hunter, “is a story. It is a story about living for a purpose that is greater than the self. . . .” It is a story about how to live together in human community. And we no longer have such a common story, says Hunter, and that’s the problem.

This is indeed a discouraging word, but it is precisely this cultural reality that drives me to lift up our work at Seattle Pacific University. We do have a story at the center of what we are all about. We embrace this story, the ancient Christian story, a “story about living for a purpose that is greater than the self,” a story of human flourishing.

We do announce a story of what is true and good and beautiful. And we are convinced that ours is a story that shapes character, a story from which we can actually teach character.

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Categories: Change, Character, Culture

1 reply

  1. I think that the turmoil of the present era is a kind of purging thing. In a culture like ours we (like most anyone having the kind of leisure that we have) can get lazy. We can get away with saying we believe something without being in life situations that make us prove what we believe. However, in the midst of turmoil, syllogisms don’t necessarily work too well. You are forced to find what you really believe and stand on it. So much of our Christian culture has been teaching and preaching and patting each other on the back. It seems that God is allowing things to rev up to where we won’t have the luxury of not really knowing what we believe.

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