Why Character? Why Now?
Communities require moral coherence to flourish. Is that possible today?
When I hear the word “character,” I confess I don’t immediately jump up and down. There’s a joyless starchiness to the word, the image of a strained schoolmarm about to rap your knuckles. It carries historical baggage, the word conjuring up a kind of moral imperialism associated with yesteryear’s middle class. There are so many different value systems now; isn’t the time for a one-size-fits-all character revival over?
And yet, there is interest. And not just interest, but some deep, uncommonly wide agreement that while life in the twenty-first century calls for character more than ever, the conditions under which good character is forged are in trouble—weakened as much by the decline of traditional institutions as by a culture that promotes “I” before “we,” pleasure before purpose, self-expression before submission to a source of moral wisdom beyond oneself.
Simply put, there are no longer authoritative institutions that are widely trusted. Our contemporaries disagree about the fundamental nature of the good, about Western civilization and its vices and virtues, about the requirements and rewards of democratic citizenship. In one decade technology has rewired our relationships to work, knowledge, place, and one another. There is a creeping sensation of split-level living between the real and the virtual, of compartmentalized identities and behaviours in a dozen different silos, all leading to widespread experiences of alienation and meaninglessness.
Some facts: Seven million prime-working-age American men sit at home, idle and unemployed. Neighbourliness is an increasingly rare experience, with only 31 percent of Americans socializing weekly with someone next door (down from 44 percent in 1974). More people live alone, eat alone, and displace real-time conversation with controlled (if frenetic) screen time than ever before. Moral depth and literacy have declined, while a 2017 Gallup poll found that Americans’ views of the state of our moral values as a society are themselves at a nadir. (Both conservatives and liberals were surveyed.) Tribalism has replaced free and civil debate on college campuses. Two-thirds of high school students admit to cheating. More and more kids fail to perform simple developmental tasks, and there’s widespread concern that young people lack the grit to see them through when the going gets tough.
There are also attitudinal shifts that perplex the greatest generation. Traditional markers of adulthood have eroded. People are getting married later, having kids later (if bearing children at all), hopping from job to job, and just generally following a scatterplot of ever-shifting commitments. The young express a crisis of purpose and moral direction, with higher rates of anxiety and even suicide. Religious observance is at record lows, along with rates of volunteerism and engagement in community organizations. Trust in public institutions continues to weaken, diminished further by the coarseness and dishonest public discourse perpetuated by our national leaders. “Fragmentation,” “consumerism,” “isolation,” and “polarization” are perceived as symptoms and causes of our deeper malaise, and those who traditionally saw themselves as core to the great American middle now feel forgotten, excluded, and unneeded.
In all of this, alarmed citizens from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and political persuasions are looking to “character” as a kind of thread that, if sewn with care and intention, might stand a chance of re-stitching our fraying social fabric, or at least help mend its most jagged tears. There isn’t full agreement as to the precise definition, but concern for it spans sectors, subcultures, and ideological factions. From education, to the marketplace, to a millennial generation’s longings and demands, there’s a kind of humanistic renaissance going on, a renaissance in which the needs of the whole person are getting a fresh hearing. You might call it the whole-person revolution.
You see this in the classroom, where there is growing interest in providing a more holistic, personalized pedagogical palette, including project-based and social-emotional learning. You see this in medicine, with more patients wanting an integrated approach to health. You see it in the rise of shared workspaces and employers promising perks that suggest a concern for one’s well-being and sense of purpose in the job. You even see it in efforts aimed at improving life in low-income neighbourhoods, with increasing awareness that healthy relationships are key to any economic progress. There’s simply a growing appreciation for human beings as more than utilitarian consumers, and this rediscovery invites “character”—and moral conversation generally—to pull up a chair and stay awhile.
We see psychologists like Angela Lee Duckworth making real inroads with her research on grit, perseverance, and self-control at the Character Lab, gaining a wide hearing and finding application at places like KIPP Academies, West Point, even the Seattle Seahawks. The New York Times reported in January 2018 that Yale University’s most popular class ever is called “Psychology and the Good Life,” with 1,200 students enrolled to inquire into the sources of meaning and contentment. Books like David Brooks’s The Road to Character and Brené Brown’s work on courage and vulnerability have made a surprisingly big splash, revealing widespread interest in a revival of moral categories and vocabulary. An increasing number of philanthropic foundations are adding “character” and its synonyms to their giving portfolios.
What’s missing is an organizing spine. “Character” is alive and kicking, but right now it’s a hodgepodge filled with well-intentioned factions, conferences, and research commissions. There is no unifying creed, and, perhaps more importantly, no concrete framework for action. Many in our society see the development of character as worthy, but what, exactly, should they support? And, more importantly, how?
A few years ago I began a project sponsored by The Philanthropy Roundtable called the Character Initiative. The idea was to help donors evaluate initiatives that attempt to form character and transform lives, and to inspire them to see our current cultural moment as one that hungers for a revived moral consciousness, if only they could help strengthen the conditions to awaken it.
So I began with the following inquiry: How did you become who you are? Put normatively, what are the pathways to forming the will, the mind, and the heart and soul of an individual such that he or she will be equipped to navigate life’s vicissitudes with equipoise, courage, hope, and a loving knowledge of the good? I asked everyone: What makes a great citizen, a faithful wife, an attentive father, an obedient yet curious child, a devoted teacher, a tireless and kind custodial staffer, a persevering student, a resilient soldier, a wise CEO, a prudent president?
It turns out the answers typically came in the form of stories, and began to conform to a three-part arc. First, people usually cited the presence of a loving authority figure at an impressionable time of their lives. This could be a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a coach. Second, they tended to recall some difficult struggle that forever after defined them, both in the scars it left and the strength it built. Third, they referred to a time when they became inspired to serve a cause greater than themselves, and served that cause with commitment and passion. In all three of these, there was repetition—if through different forms, with different faces—over a lifetime.
It was a pattern, some might even say a formula. But what wasn’t formulaic was the most important caveat: these three elements have to be organic. You cannot manufacture love or struggle or even commitment and get authentic character. The three-part pattern does not translate into a machine where you put in raw materials and push out a perfect product. Life—the stuff of mystery and surprise, stakes and emotion—is always molding our character. It’s never quite a done deal.
This is where philanthropy often falters. Especially today, using currencies of dollars and limited time horizons and theories of change and so much data, donors are naturally tempted to crave control of the outcomes, including the time it takes to achieve them. We try to confront character head-on, supporting programs that claim to impart it in one fell swoop, conducting research that dissects the complexity of human motivation into slices that can be measured and isolated for targeted interventions. An effort to teach empathy here, some grit training over there. While well-intended, such approaches too often treat the individual as if he or she lives in a static environment, making little difference in the communities and culture we need to see edified.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is an opportunity right now for the philanthropic imagination around character to be recast, away from a didactic focus on individuals toward a more institutional vision, one that’s equipped to shape the moral ecologies that nurture growth.The question of the hour is: What characterizes those institutions that not only form us to be individuals of character, but catalyze the communities that nourish our efforts to be faithful spouses, responsible parents, generous neighbours, self-governing citizens, resolute in a crisis, and gracious at a picnic? What makes a community of character?
It turns out there are at least sixteen features that distinguish the most compelling communities across class and culture, life stage, and even service sector. I have investigated hundreds, and noticed that the ones that work have certain traits in common. There are certain conditions present in them that run against today’s rhythms and values. These conditions are communal in nature. They transcend walks of life. They are found in successful organizations in every social sector. They meet fundamental human needs.
These questions offer a framework for donors as they determine whether a potential grantee is fostering a community of character. These questions should be useful to philanthropists who want to evaluate their own organizations. They should aid those who want to create new institutions. And in illuminating what exactly makes for a trustworthy, even transformative institution, they can guide all those interested in strengthening the middle ring of today’s civic web.
One last note: Obviously, there are different ways to define what character is and how we as a society might better nurture its development. But most of the definitions fall into two categories. There is the individualistic view, which tends to be concerned with behaviours like honouring one’s word, comporting oneself with civility and even-handedness, persevering when the going gets rough, thinking about the long-term consequences of one’s actions. And then there’s more of a communitarian view, one that understands character in terms of a broad set of spiritual and moral longings that can only be satisfied through a web of vibrant communities that foster loving relationships, inspiring ideals, a system of accountability, and some greater purpose. To put it simply, the first view honours the power of human agency, the second the power of structural conditions.
My conviction is that somewhere between these two views is the truest vision. Somewhere between our need for traditional character-builders and our longing for innovative community-makers is where this inquiry needs to begin, and actually where democratic renewal has always begun. To address one without the other is like pouring new wine into old wineskins, futile and a waste. Good character and vibrant community are interdependent, and so should their reimagining be.
16 Questions: An Organizational Guide for Great Character Formation
“By their fruit you shall know them . . .”
The world is full of organizations that seek to transform character and improve lives, but how can you tell which ones are successful and which ones aren’t?
The following questions should provide a guide to help you make these judgment calls. They fall into sixteen categories, corresponding to the sixteen crucial features that truly formative institutions tend to possess:
Does the organization have a clear, strong reason for being in the world, embraced and pursued by all of its members? Does it give its members organizing criteria for what to love?
2. LITURGIES AND RITUALS
Is there a covenant or creed that is affirmed regularly as a community, in word and deed? Are there communal rhythms, routines, and rituals?
3. FULL ENGAGEMENT BY ALL MEMBERS
Are all members of the organization, regardless of position or stature, engaged in the mission and aware of the significance and contribution of their roles?
4. POWER OF THE PARTICULAR
Does the organization have a particular identity, a thick set of norms that gets passed on to its members? Does it have a unique quality that is recognizable in those it has shaped?
5. WHOLE PERSON
Does the organization have a clear conception of the whole person—head, heart, and helping hand—and seek to develop it? Are employees and departments integrated across domains, serving constituents in complementary, mutually reinforcing ways?
6. HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS
Does the institution put relational health as the foundation for its success? Does the organization foster social trust? Does it have a strong sense of community?
Is the institution careful about the latest technological advance, embracing it insofar as it promotes healthy relationships and individual skill, and setting limits when it makes those objectives more difficult?
8. INTENTIONAL PLURALISM
Does the institution foster opportunities to relate to those unlike yourself? Are members consistently exposed to other worlds, trained in the arts of civility, deep listening, and cross-cultural agility?
9. STRUGGLE AND GROWTH
Are there opportunities for growth and tests of character? Does the organization have a process by which such struggles are given meaning and direction?
10. VULNERABILITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Has psychological safety been established such that individuals feel free to be honest? Is there a structure of mutual accountability?
Are there built-in processes for reflection, and excavation of one’s inner life and public fruits?
Are there attentive and conscientious authority figures who serve as role models, coaches, and mentors? Does the leader set the character standard for the organization?
13. AGENCY AND INITIATIVE
Are members of the organization empowered to act, create, initiate? Are they encouraged to be responsible moral agents, not simply passive consumers?
Is there joy in the house? Are hospitality and unconditional welcome a key part of the institution’s DNA?
Are there consistent testimonies of whole-person change in a positive direction?
When people depart from this formative institution, do they promote a similar culture in other contexts? Has the institution imparted a set of ideals that members want to live up to ever after?
It’s important to note that the features of effective character-building institutions are fundamentally interrelated: they are both interdependent and mutually reinforcing. This is particularly key in today’s philanthropic and academic climates, which tend to cobble together a creed out of lots of disparate pieces. Instead, we should understand the fabric of character as precisely that: a fabric—interwoven, and much of the time, indivisible.
Feel free to test these against your own experience. When you reflect on the most profound encounters in your own life, the most transformative institutions and relationships, do the memories share these characteristics? You may be attracted to some traits over others, depending on your area of interest, expertise, and foundation portfolio. That is fine. Start with what resonates. In this session we will peel apart the questions and the contexts that best embody them. Often these organizations struggle to articulate the magic that makes them work, a common weakness that could almost be included in this list of signaling criteria. They instead succeed at the most demanding of tasks: transforming souls, and cultivating character by way of a healthy ecology of norms and relationships.
This piece was adapted from the introduction to The Fabric of Character, a guidebook published by Anne and The Philanthropy Roundtable in March of 2019.