Are character strengths enough?

Teaching virtues to school children is only one part of handing on our moral heritage.
Kevin Ryan | 14 October 2011
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Two decades ago Harvard historian, Richard Hunt, coined the phrase, “no-fault history”, reportedly based on his experience teaching undergraduates his course on modern German history. In discussing the extermination policies and other unspeakable evil decisions of Hitler and his Nazi henchmen, Hunt’s undergraduates could not bring themselves to judge them as evil. “How can we judge Hitler?” they asked. “We don’t know how his parents treated him. Hitler was a victim of his own background, his conditioning. We don’t know the whole story. How can we say an individual is evil? Who are we to judge?” Who indeed?

Hunt’s description of his elite students’ inability to hold human beings accountable for their actions should have been the canary in the coal mine for what has evolved since: the near disappearance of moral language and, thus, moral concepts among American youth.

A just released book, Lost In Transition, by sociologist Christian Smith, can be read as the “coming attractions” for a moral Dark Ages. For over ten years, Smith and his team of researchers have been studying a large sample of American youth. Their recent study focused on a carefully selected subset of youth, ages 18 to 23, and began with long, open-ended interviews probing their moral beliefs and attitudes.

What the researchers found was a wide and deep mental canyon, devoid of moral words or ethical principles. Two out of three could not conjure up a moral dilemma that they had ever faced. When confronted with moral dilemmas and problems, their reaction was not based on ethical principles or religious dicta, but how they “felt” about the issue. “Whether or not I have an abortion depends on how I feel about it. It’s not a matter of right and wrong.” “I’m not good at the right and wrong stuff, but I know what I want to do.” It is all very personal. Very me-oriented. Very emotions-based.

Having just come through what is arguably the bloodiest century in human history, this study of the moral vision and understanding of our young is especially frightening. The 20th century -- when warfare morphed from battlefield combat between professional soldiers to the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children, and where efficient extermination factories were built -- should have jarred awake our moral sensibilities. And, too, this still new 21st century has inherited huge ethical challenges, from the on-going threat of nuclear and biological warfare to the life threatening destruction of our fragile ecosystem.

One might expect in the face of these global problems that families, schools and churches would be making an all-out effort to pass on to our young as vigorously as possible our heritage of moral thought. While clearly there is no dearth of individual efforts to ignite the consciences and moral vision of our children, the Smith study suggests the institutional effort is lacking. The “if-it-feels-good-it’s-okay” morality is winning and it is the death knell of civilization.

Schools, traditionally, have had a dual mission: knowledge transmission and moral development. Socrates said it best: education should make us both smart and good. Since the Second World War, in the United States and many parts of the developed world the school’s role of transmitting a moral code been given scant attention. In a crazy bit of “democratic logic” the question, “Whose moral values can I teach?” has paralyzed educators.

The fact that democracy is based on moral concepts and values, such as fairness, justice, and personal responsibility seems somehow to have eluded the modern educators. Instead, they have taken up with every individual-focused movement, from self-esteem to learning how to be your own best friend, that the psychological community has been selling. And, as Smith’s research cited above demonstrates, they have succeeded in their mission: a youth cohort with a moral vision that ends at their own nose.

A few weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times Magazine, that beacon of all things trendy in education, featured an article suggesting that a new direction may be emerging. Entitled, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” it describes the work of two New York City schools, one serving the urban rich and the other the urban poor. The two schools, from principals down through cafeteria workers, are committed to teaching virtues. Of course, since these are secular schools the word “virtue” is too churchy for them and they use the term “character strengths”.

The schools are applying the findings of the founder of a new movement in psychology called “positive psychology”. As a field of study, psychology has what could kindly be called a checkered history. Sigmund Freud broke psychology away from philosophy as its own disciple in order to study scientifically the nature of the human person. For a hundred years the “new” psychology has been largely preoccupied with the dark underside of human nature: sexual perversion, our elusive “unconscious” and mental illnesses of all kinds.

Finally, in the 1990’s, the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues started looking at healthy humans and asking, How are they different? What are their attributes, their characteristic behaviors? Why do some people have flourishing lives and others not? Their investigations clearly took them out of mainline psychology and into works such as those of Aristotle and Confucius, the Torah and even the Boy Scout Handbook. In other words, into the traditional sources of wisdom.

Their rigorous research, which is being applied in the two New York schools, discovered that successful human beings manifest certain habits, certain character strengths. They have been able to isolate twenty-four character strengths, among them bravery, fairness, wisdom, integrity, love, kindness, self-control, responsibility and citizenship. They also believe (and the early research results at the two schools are bearing this out) that these character strengths can actually be taught.

If the reader is shaking his or her head and thinking, “Isn’t this a masterful grasp of the obvious? Haven’t good parents and good teachers always known that it is part of their job to help a child acquire habits such as self-control, fairness and the rest? Isn’t this the ‘making us good’ that Socrates was urging twenty-four centuries ago?” Well, yes. Still, we have to take our good fortune where we find it. If some of our public schools are coming out of their fog of relativism and individualism, they should be encouraged.

Nevertheless, this encouraging trend of teaching children the habits of a virtuous life seems fragile. Are these “character strengths” merely those that one needs to get into a top college or become a captain of industry? While engaging our young in the acquisition of virtuous habits is a step in the right direction, the moral tradition of the West has been based on a view of the human person as transcendent. We are kind and considerate of the other because we are connected. We share a common nature and human destiny.

Can character strengths or habits alone overcome rampant individualism? Can the next generation actually hold off the modern moral barbarians at the gate if they are nurtured on the thin gruel of self-interest? Down the road, we will surely see.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu

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