The Foundation’s most important work is investing in the character formation of the rising generations of Americans. In addition to the fundamental importance of pursuing good character for its own sake, our country’s ability to maintain effective self-governance and a standard of living that facilitates human flourishing depends upon the good character of our citizens.
But our late-modern American culture inculcates a drive to achieve while ignoring the formation of good character; demands performance, while identity atrophies; trains behavior, with purpose undefined; fosters volunteerism without articulating its animating values. We want morality and its attending virtues – such as respect, humility, honesty, compassion, responsibility, and diligence – but we want them without the external constraints of creed, community, or institutions.
Failed approaches to character formation have focused solely on individuals’ “strength” development, drawing almost entirely from the psychological fields, while neglecting the arts, literature, history, sociology, philosophy, and theology. The dominant approaches leave the institutional context and disciplinary domains of character underappreciated and underused. These other approaches are necessary to deeply form virtues such as honesty, integrity, responsibility, compassion, industriousness, and the like.
“Character education broadly defined can claim a long history, beginning perhaps in ancient Greece some 2,800 years ago when middling farmers took responsibility for handing down – through hard work, personal responsibility, and freedom – a cultivated piece of private property to their next generations and fostered a culture from which arose a polis dedicated to the flourishing of as many citizens as possible,” wrote Ryan Olson, director and leader of the K12 Education Program, in an article published by Oxford University Press.
“Character is a Greek word connoting a feature deeply etched,” Olson continued. “Though character has usually been considered to be more social in its constitution – reflecting the ideas, institutions, and individuals that comprise a moral culture – it has in modernity come to be considered as almost exclusively psychological in nature, reflecting personal choices, brain functioning, preferences, and/or ‘values’ of autonomous individuals.”
A more enduring form of moral life, of good character, is the capacity to say “no,” according to sociologist James Davison Hunter. Society functions best when individuals exercise self-restraint within a moral order in the pursuit ofthe greater good, a good to which one is attached and by which one is animated through a community. Such moral discipline is binding on the conscience, not coercively, but as a reflection of a person’s moral autonomy and responsibility.
Character is constituted by a common framework – moral discipline, moral attachment, and moral autonomy – but encourages rich diversity in the particular content, incorporating texts, stories, symbols, and institutions that respect and foster this perspective.
The University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (IASC) studies cultural change, seeking to understand transformations in the frameworks of meaning and moral order in individual and public life. The Institute’s research highlights existing models of effective character formation and the development of alternative ones. Schools that form character in diverse and rigorous ways include the Brookfield Academy in Brookfield, Wis., the Denver School of Science and Technology, and the Great Hearts Academies in Phoenix.