On Teaching Character, Part II

Last week on the blog I was reflecting on the profound discouragement we all feel as we witness, on an almost daily basis, eruptions of ugly scandalous behavior in our midst. “What in the world is going on here?” we ask. “Doesn’t it seem to be worse than it used to be?” “And why is it so hard to talk about these things without seeming inappropriately judgmental?”

I’d like to think about these kinds of questions again.

Some time ago I was speaking in downtown Seattle to a roundtable of business and community leaders. I was asked to talk about what I considered the distinctive purposes of my university, and I decided, naturally for me, to talk about our commitment to character formation. After all, our mission statement at Seattle Pacific talks about graduating people of “competence and character.”

I assumed I was surely preaching to a choir. Character matters to our community. Character is essential in business and the professions, in politics and in our schools. Character is vitally important to our families and our marriages and our relationships. Surely we would all assume this is at least part of the business of the university.

When the Q & A time arrived, another university president in the audience, the president of one of our strong public institutions, raised his hand quickly and said, “But, Phil, this is not the purpose of the university. We have no business thinking we have anything to say in the complex and conflicted arena of character. We can’t be in the business of imposing any kind of moral framework on our students.”

I was surprised, stunned actually. I think I was being scolded. I think I was being told I am somewhat antiquated in these pursuits, too moralistic, out of step with the true work of the university in our day. The day of teaching character is over. This was disturbing to me. While I thought I was preaching to the choir, apparently, when it comes to the teaching of character there is no choir out there.

But I don’t buy it. While I have such enormous respect for the important work of James Davison Hunter on the “death of character,” the death of our ability to teach character, I want to run right in the face of these cultural currents. I believe we can and must teach for the formation of character in our students.

I think back on a note struck by George Weigel following the death of the great Pope John Paul II. George Weigel says that the Pope understood so clearly that any progress in the 21st century would come “in the realm of culture: in vibrant public moral cultures capable of disciplining and directing the tremendous energies — economic, political, aesthetic, and, yes, sexual — set loose in free societies.” Yes, I think this is it. This is what is missing as we witness the unfolding of so many sad stories in our day. We have failed to build those “vibrant public moral cultures.”

And how do we go about doing just that?

“A vibrant public moral culture is essential for democracy and the market,” Weigel goes on to say about the pope, “for only such a culture can inculcate and affirm the virtues necessary to make freedom work. Democracy and the free economy . . . are not machines that can cheerfully run by themselves. Building the free society certainly involves getting the institutions right; beyond that, however, freedom’s future depends on men and women of virtue, capable of knowing, and choosing, the genuinely good.”

That’s precisely where the work of the Christian university enters the picture. We are trying to learn better every day how to shape “men and women of virtue, capable of knowing, and choosing, the genuinely good.” Not an easy task in a world where the teaching traditions of virtue are constantly contested. But that’s certainly our task as a Christian university.

We have a chance to fly right in the face of the currents of culture that tell us the days for teaching character are over. And as we do just that, we have a chance to help build that “vibrant public moral culture” that is indeed so essential to the health of our world in the future.