Good Citizens Understand Community, Engage Actively

This article was originally published on October 26, 2017. It has been slightly edited for length. 

Except for small groups of hermits, found here and there throughout human history, most human persons have lived in community since the earliest times. Perhaps it was first necessary for survival, but throughout the ages humans have formed communities and lived social lives for comfort and fulfillment.  

Customs, manners, and laws must be established if communities are to survive and flourish. Humanity’s ascent is flush with examples of evolving methods, meaning, and sophistication of humans in community. “Habits of the heart . . . [are] the sum of ideas that shape mental habits . . . the whole moral and intellectual state of a people,” claimed Alexis de Tocqueville. Citizenship is a practical response to the needs of each and every community. 

But there is another aspect to add. If we are not fully human except in community, not selves except in relation to other selves (as Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, David Riesman, and many other thinkers argue), then how we engage with others is essential to our humanity. If we understand ourselves through relationships, then how we order our relationships is of critical importance. 

Finally if we are to truly embrace and sustain the principles of an advanced democracy, we must realize that there can be no democracy without the collective energies and coherent engagement of persons living in the democracy. Citizenship embraces the multi-faceted behaviors, relationships, and commitments necessary for civil society to function and for human persons to fully flourish. It is essential that we afford our youth the opportunities to understand deeply these principles and to begin to explore how they will engage as full-fledged members of a civil society. Equipping our young with the concepts that underpin these dual objectives of human flourishing and engagement in the common good is the work of forming good citizens in the fullest sense. 

Two things are required to accomplish this work—and schools play a vital role in their realization. First, individuals need to understand themselves as selves entering the public square. Second, they need to understand what it means to participate actively in the communities in which they are engaged.  

Educators tasked with this developmental responsibility must first make sense of their own relationship to the common good and their communities. This process of discovery will yield insights into how a human person forms attachments and the individual strengths necessary to fully participate, properly serve, and ultimately to exercise the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship.  

On Feeding the Good

This article was originally published on January 29, 2018. In it, former Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction explains how daily choices shape character.

Everyone has character. A person is not born with character; it is learned. It is not genetic, but it can be taught. It cannot be bought, but it can be earned.

To me, character is how you act when no one is watching.

I heard a story long ago about an old Cherokee who is teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

My experience is that choices made during our lifetime, especially during our youth, have the greatest impact on who we are, what we stand for, and how others view us.

Inside each of us there is an internal struggle between competing interests. One interest is based on selfishness and greed; the other interest is based on honesty, truth, and kindness. Only one will prevail. What we choose will reveal our true character.

If we “feed the good” and strive to do the right thing, even when it is difficult, eventually what were once difficult decisions become easier, and soon they become part of our character.

“Feeding the bad” can create habits that dull our senses, and soon we begin to rationalize decisions that we would previously have never considered. They eventually become part of who we are. They make up our character.

As a young man, I learned a poem by Alexander Pope that still rings in my ears.

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,

As to be hated needs but be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with its face,

We first abhor, then we pity, then we embrace.

Sadly, I have seen this play out many times.

We need poetry like Pope’s to warn us of the perils of vice, and stories like that of the Cherokee grandfather show us the consequences of our daily choices, because all of us are building character. The daily decisions of which wolf to feed define what our character will be.

A Bullying Lesson from an Inspiring Teacher: Character Is Destiny

This article was originally published on October 30, 2017. In it, education leader Bill Jackson recounts a lesson about character he has never forgotten.

I don’t remember much of 6th grade other than the day Mr. Kastroll cancelled our regular classes and taught an impromptu lesson on character. No math that day. No art or PE. Just lecture, discussion, reflection, and writing on a choice we had made.  

Early that morning a 5th-grade girl had been physically bullied by another 5th grader. A 5th-grade matter, you might say, but the problem was that many of us in the 6th grade had seen the incident—and we had done nothing about it.  

The girl who had been bullied was injured and upset. Mr. Kastroll was livid.  

How could we possibly have seen this and done nothing, he wanted to know. He didn’t ask us this question just once or twice and then let the matter slide. As I recall it, he lectured us for more than an hour about our individual and collective failure.  

I also recall that it didn’t feel like a lecture in the traditional sense. The talk he gave us, along with the reflective writing and discussions we did, felt more like a punch in the gut.  

Mr. Kastroll wanted us to see that moment as a test of character that we had failed. He wanted us to know that failing to act in the face of injustice perpetrated by others is itself an injustice. We were to think of ourselves as defenders of justice and kindness and safety on our school campus, he told us. Inaction in the face of serious challenges to those norms was hardly better than direct violations of the norms.  

I’ve never forgotten this lesson, even if I haven’t always lived up to it.  

I think of character as “values made manifest” through human behavior. On the one hand, we hold in our hearts certain aspirations for our behavior. We may aim to be kind, just, and reverent. But how do we bring these aspirations to life through our actions? When other people aren’t watching or when there is a significant price to be paid, what are we really committed to doing?  

An old cliché teaches us that character is something more “caught” than taught. From a young age, children are watching their parents and peers for clues about how to behave. They’re absorbing the norms of the community—the virtues and values that that community prizes above all others. 

Another old cliché is also true: Character is destiny. There is no more important focus for teachers and parents than character formation.  

So ask yourself: what are the norms of my community? Are they what I and others want them to be? And how should the adults who care for students and children collaborate to help them internalize the norms to which we’re deeply committed? 

Bill Jackson founded, and now leads to help parents of children before they reach school age.

A Conviction of Truth

New York Times columnist David Brooks frequently writes about character and related moral themes. In a recent column, Brooks quoted the founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, James Davison Hunter.

The passage was from Hunter’s 2000 book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age without Good and Evil. The book has had a profound impact on my life and career—and on the birth of CultureFeed.

From 2008 until 2016, I had the privilege of working for a family foundation. The benefactors wanted to invest in the rising generation of Americans, and they were most concerned about character formation, the moral life of the young. Were children cultivating the virtues of honesty, dependability, industry, compassion, and the like? I was tasked with finding ways to help schools and school leaders focus on character as the most important aspect of education.

I read as many character-education books and curricula as I could find. I flew around the country and interviewed education leaders and researchers. I met with principals and CEOs. Almost all of the people I spoke with were sincere. They had hearts of gold.

But many of the conversations seemed shallow, thin, perfunctory, unserious—and nothing quite fit the foundation’s interests. What these programs were doing seemed inadequate given our need: kids who were raised to know and to do the right thing reliably. We couldn’t count on moral platitudes, a grab bag of values, and a character workbook used Wednesdays at 1:15 p.m.

I talked with one group that told students to focus on developing their personal strengths—aptitudes that the kids discovered by taking a personal assessment. But for me, this immediately raised a question: What if the child’s weakness turned out to be honesty? Well, the group’s spokesman responded, the child should still focus on their strengths, since after all, we know some people just aren’t capable of honesty.

He wasn’t alone in this view. Another group told me they couldn’t “impose the value of honesty” on students. This struck me as baffling. This same group required the parents of their students to sign an agreement at the beginning of the school year and carefully comply with its terms. Why require integrity from the parents but not the students? What message did that send? It seemed almost insane.

The Death of CharacterAnd then I read The Death of Character. Its impact was dramatic. Suddenly, I understood why almost none of the programs seemed to be working. They weren’t working because there was a fundamental design flaw.

In that book, Hunter traces the long history of moral education in America, from the Puritans through the Common School movement, John Dewey, Thomas Lickona, and William Bennett. Hunter reviews hundreds of empirical studies. He unpacks the theory—the anthropology, pedagogy, cosmology, and ethics—that underlies each of the dominant approaches to character education.

Here’s the story. For more than 150 years, American character educators have, admirably and rightly, tried to be inclusive. As America’s population diversified, they searched for a common language to accommodate under one school roof the disparate moralities of children from many traditions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. And they succeeded. The new language of moral education was psychology.

Although Americans could not agree on the goal of character education—Heaven? Responsible citizens? Productive workers?—a consensus emerged agreeing to a generic “happiness” and “well-being.” Although Americans could not agree on the nature of children—Original sinners? Pristine innocents?—a consensus emerged viewing “autonomous choosers” as acceptable. Although Americans could not agree on how morality should be taught, a consensus emerged recognizing that children progressed psychologically through stages of moral and personality development.

And although Americans could not agree on the content of moral instruction, a consensus emerged advocating a fundamental shift to process over content. That’s what psychologists favored: “a working subordination of metaphysics to method—a subjection of some notion of moral reality, to which one must or ought to conform, to the process whereby morality is acquired,” as Hunter phrased it.

This consensus continues today in the form of positive psychology, social-emotional learning, and many virtue-oriented and community-based approaches, programs, and schools. The problem with many of these is that they are insufficient. They cannot form students’ character.

The shift has been profound. Until recently, the goal of moral education was to serve others through self-sacrifice, not self-fulfillment. Until recently, the nature of children was rooted in a community with traditions and with caring adults who imparted common goals and standards—realities that children had to conform to with self-discipline, while resisting temptations with self-control. Until recently, morality was seen as the product of memorization and reflection, mistakes and restitution—not automatic development.

And until recently, moral instruction needed content—the sacred revelation of religions, or for the nonreligious, “the conviction of truth made sacred, abiding as an authoritative presence within consciousness and life, reinforced by habits institutionalized within a moral community,” as Brooks quoted Hunter in The New York Times. Psychology, in contrast, focuses repeatedly on the truths discovered subjectively within.

Psychology certainly has insights to offer, but the formation of children is too complex for a single academic discipline alone, since it represents just one facet of human understanding. We need contributions from the whole range of the human intellect—history, sociology, literature, philosophy, theology, political theory, economics, and so on. Notably, this includes disciplines that have been crowded out of the main arena of molding children’s character.

For more than a decade, Hunter’s book has provided the lens that has helped my wife and me decide where to enroll our children in school. The book has influenced my professional career, including my personal journey to spearhead the development and launch of CultureFeed.

If character is your interest, stay tuned to CultureFeed. We’re continuing to share insights from The Content of Their Characteressentially a follow-up study to The Death of Character. We’ll soon be publishing the results of the largest survey ever conducted of American parents and their teens on character formation. And we’re sharing the lessons we’re learning about measurement and best practices with a growing audience of school leaders and other educators.

With the future of our children and our communities hanging in the balance, character is too important to leave to packaged programs that are unsuited to—and even half-hearted about—the cause.

* * *

Ryan S. Olson is Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Dissipating Vapor: In Search of a Grander Story

For many teachers and parents, the news that broke last week was tragic but unsurprising. Long touted by teens as harmless and eyed by adults with deep concern, e-cigarettes are now being identified as the probable culprit behind nearly 150 hospitalizations and the first vaping-related US death. According to a joint statement by the CDC and the FDA last Friday, health officials are investigating 215 cases of severe lung disease associated with vaping.

Even before the recently breaking stories—and the harrowing photographs of intubated teens making their rounds on social media—health experts were concerned. In 2018, vaping represented the biggest upsurge in substance abuse among young people in the past 44 years, according to a study out of the University of Michigan. More than 37 percent of high school seniors admit to using use e-cigarettes; the devices—often designed to look like USB drives or pens—are ubiquitous.

Educators know this better than anyone. Many bathroom breaks have become suspiciously long. The trademark sweetness of flavors like gummy bear and cotton candy lingers in locker rooms and restrooms and buses. Districts scramble to educate parents as the school year begins. Vapes are illegal for kids under 18, and they’re almost always banned at schools, even for those who can legally procure them.

But in the face of health risks and disciplinary action, many teenagers still vape. Why? Despite it being dangerous and illegal, vaping is also pleasurable and addictive.

Nagging, threatening, and guilt-tripping are notoriously unsuccessful, just as they are with scores of other temptations. Even horror stories of hospitalized young people bounce maddeningly off the psyches of immortality-deluded adolescents. They often lack the character to say “no” to what is enjoyable but harmful or illegal. And yet this is exactly what a lifetime of strong character will ask of them.

In fact, the bar is even higher. Even when a thing is permissible, there will be times when it is appropriate—an adult drinking wine at dinner—and others when it is not—an adult drinking wine at a PTO meeting. People of character will be required to say “no” to themselves over and over again—to their desire to sleep in, or eat three desserts, or zone out on their cell phone—for the sake of higher goals like holding down a job, staying healthy, and maintaining family relationships.

Resisting the allure of vaping is bootcamp for a life of moral decision-making.

In the introduction to The Content of Their Character, James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson write that

in its formal sense, character is comprised of moral discipline, moral attachment, and moral autonomy: the capacities of an individual to inhibit his or her personal appetites or interests on behalf of a greater good, to affirm and live by the ideals of a greater good, and to freely make ethical decisions for or against those goods.

In other words, character requires that we inhibit our appetites on behalf of a greater good and also affirm a greater good by saying “yes” to something better.

Herein lies the key to character: There is a bigger picture in view than just forgoing forbidden fruit. The “no” to more sleep is a “yes” to gainful employment, financial independence, generosity, and productiveness. The “no” to spending all night on one’s phone is a “yes” to intimacy, service, and engagement.

When we ask teenagers to abstain from vaping, what greater good do we hold out? What more compelling vision do we present?

In The Death of Character, James Davison Hunter writes, “Implicit in the word ‘character’ is a story. It is a story about living for a purpose that is greater than the self.”

There is no simple solution to addiction, and the siren song of vaping is loud. But as we talk with young people about choices, we can be agents of change if we help them yearn for a story grander than their own immediate pleasure. “No” becomes easier when the corresponding “yes” is in view. With their eyes set on bigger ambitions than personal indulgence, teens’ choices can become clearer and wiser—and perhaps the vaping epidemic will begin to recede.


Character in the Classroom: Transcript of Interview with Joshua Gibbs

This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview conducted on August 13, 2019 with classical educator Joshua Gibbs. Mr. Gibbs teaches humanities at the Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How to Be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue. Gibbs blogs about education here.

Joanna Breault: Thank you for joining us today. I just wanted jump right into our discussion of virtue. You have a book that was published back in 2018 called How to Be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue, and I noticed that it contains a statement that “effective education is primarily concerned with the acquisition of virtue.” I think there might be some watching this [interview] who maybe aren’t familiar with the term virtue, or [think] that can sometimes maybe sound old-fashioned. Can you explain, first of all, kind of what you mean by this term and then what you mean by the idea that education should be primarily concerned with acquiring it?

Joshua Gibbs: Well, when I say that education ought to primarily be concerned with the acquisition of virtue, I’m thinking of a claim that Walker Percy once made, which is that you can get all A’s and still flunk life. You can be very good at what you do and still be miserable in your life. And the way that you don’t flunk life is by pursuing virtue; the way that you succeed in life is pursuing virtue. And when I say virtue, I would define a virtue as “a quality of excellence in a human being.”

So, the ancient Greeks and Romans acknowledged four virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. And Christianity added three virtues to those, and those three virtues are faith, hope, and love. And so the kind of education that I offer my students, the kind of education which classical educators offer, is an education in all seven virtues: faith, hope, love, wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.

JB: Okay, thank you. That’s helpful. And so, I guess that answers the question, Then why they should be primarily concerned with that? You’re talking about succeeding at life and not just winning the game. In your pursuit of that, how do you go about that? How do you go about teaching those seven virtues? What kind of lessons do you find useful that seem to stick with the students after they leave your class?

JG: Well, a classical motto is “all things by imitation.” And so the modeling of virtue for students in my classroom is primarily done through the examination of classic texts, texts which have lasted, texts which have been submitted to the difficult test of time and succeeded. So I model virtue for my students or I tell them to model the virtue in—virtue as it’s presented in—a text like Jane Eyre or Paradise Lost or Frankenstein. Those are some of my favorite books to teach. Those are some of my favorite books to teach virtue from.

So, I wouldn’t hold up myself as an example of virtue. I would look at men and women who have contributed something great and something lasting to the world and look at faith or love or courage as they modeled it. And I wouldn’t say that there’s a difference between virtue and the pursuit of virtue. And so I wouldn’t tell my students, you know, “be like me”; I’m not worth imitating. I would tell them, “Be like Jane Eyre”; I would tell them to be like Solomon. I would point to someone whose life was really worthy of imitation. At the same time, you can’t just tell someone, “Go be good.” The response to that is, “Well right, but how?”

JB: Right.

JG: There’s something kind of strange and funny about the rookie preacher who just keeps shouting, “Stop sinning!” to the congregation, to which the congregation ought to respond, “Right…you know, how do we do that? That’s what we’re here for.” You have to tell them that. So I think that there are habits of life that are consistent with the pursuit of virtue, and those are really kind of where the rubber meets the road.

So as far as me and my students are concerned, there’s various habits that I would say tend towards the acquisition of virtue. One is respecting traditions that last. Another is reading generously: delving beyond first, not trusting first impressions or second or third impressions. I often tell my students that the work of an intellectual is to get all the way to sixth or seventh or eighth impressions. And to, you know, to dial it back. Use the common sense of your third impression and the nuance of your sixth impression and wait to speak until you really know what you want to say. Don’t speak off the cuff. But then the daily habits of prayer and the recitation of canonical texts I think are terribly important in the acquisition of virtue as well. All of my students daily—in class every day—recite lengthy portions of all the books that we read in class.

So those are some of the habits, those are some of the ways, in which we can pursue virtue. And I would model those practices to my students. Even if I didn’t say, you know, “I’ve obtained virtue; just be like me,” I would tell them, “I myself am trying to be like Jane Eyre; I myself am trying to be like Boethius or Solomon.”

JB: And so would those literary texts be what you would consider sources? Or I guess you’re saying they’re more models. Sources would be the Scriptures, the ancients. But those would be the models that you go to.

JG: Yeah, those would. Yeah, I would. So I’m not a Bible teacher. I’m not a theology teacher, and I think that while I reference scripture all the time and I reference biblical truths in class, I’m not a trained theologian. It’s my place at the school to teach classic literature, and I believe that you learn virtue from scripture. But I believe that God is very generous, and that he’s not stingy, and that he’s granted a great many people knowledge in virtue. And so when I read or teach Jane Eyre or Frankenstein or Paradise Lost, I believe it’s the generosity of God that’s being studied and understood in these books, even if it’s not a canonical scripture.

JB: Do you tend, with a piece of literature, to focus on one virtue? Or do you pull multiple examples of different virtues from one text?

JG: I would say I pull multiple examples. There are certain texts, of course, that tend towards a meditation on a certain virtue. There is a lot about the virtue of chastity and the vice of lust in a book like Jane Eyre. There’s a lot about the vice of idle curiosity and the virtue of steadfastness in Frankenstein. So I think all these books tend towards a discussion of a certain virtue and a certain vice, although you’ve got to be open, on every page, to what it is that the author has for you.

JB: I read recently a blog post that you wrote about teaching virtues through history. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JG: Yeah. So as a classical educator, I believe that the purpose of any class is teaching virtue, so if it’s a geometry class, if it’s a biology class—no matter what the class is—it’s about inculcating virtue in students. And I think that there’s often a temptation to view history as a discipline which is separate from the pursuit of virtue, there’s a temptation to treat history as just a catalog of names and dates and peace treaties and wars and body counts and generals and that kind of thing, and to not have any heroes in a history or to not recognize any villains in a history. And objective facts don’t train human affections; subjective judgments do, which means that when you teach history, you need to uphold certain people as worthy of imitation and you need to condemn other people as being villains and scoundrels who are not worth imitating, not worth modeling your life after.

And of course, you have to teach names and dates and facts and peace treaties and wars and all the rest. But the point of unloading all of that information on your students is aiding them in making judgments about who is good and who is evil, and who did good and who didn’t do good. And unless history class tends towards the upholding of certain men and women as worthy of imitation, you’re not going to capture the heart of a student. Merely throwing [out] a lot of facts and names and dates is not going to inspire love. But if you uphold certain people as being worthy of imitation—if you have heroes, if you admire people, if you love people…. No one ever loved a method. We love people, not methods, and so history class needs to have people worthy of love—and worthy of hatred, as well.

JB: How do you find students responding to this kind of approach to history? Are they more engaged than otherwise? What’s their response like?

JG: Well, that’s an interesting question. So it depends on what point in the student’s career you’re asking about. It sometimes happens that early enough in the year, students ask in the middle of a lecture on history, like, “When are we going to get to history?” And what they mean is, When are we going to get to a long catalog of names and dates and wars and peace treaties? And while I think those things are valuable and you can’t teach history without those things, the idea that history is mainly confined to those things is a weird assumption that a lot of students come into class with.

And so I think that early on, students can be a little put off by the fact that… teaching virtue through history is not necessarily a way of teaching history that’s going to boost your SAT score, because the SATs are not concerned with virtue. They’re not concerned with who was a hero and who was a villain. They’re concerned with rote facts that can be put on a list of multiple-choice options. And students know this—even students at classical schools know this, because they’ve taken standardized tests—and they realize that the way that the standardized test asks for information is different than the way that someone who’s teaching for virtue asks questions.

So I don’t give multiple-choice tests. I don’t give tests that are like SAT tests. The purpose of a test should not just be an IRS audit of the mind to see what you know. A test should be a learning experience. A test should be a transformative experience. Too many tests are just bureaucratic. And the primary way that students conceive of history is a kind of bureaucratic list of things to know that is then tested over in a bureaucratic-like document that is called a test. And so breaking students of the idea that there’s any value in that—that that kind of thing is transformative in and of itself—is something that can take a while.

JB: That makes sense. They’ve been so shaped by the culture to think of learning in a certain way; it makes sense that there would be a process there. So I know that your book contains some of your own story, your own journey, as related to this topic. Can you just share a bit of that story—how you came to the convictions you hold now?

JG: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been a teacher for—this would be my 15th year. I’m 38 years old. I was a terrible student in high school. I was not interested in learning. I was not interested in virtue. I was very interested in my friends. I was very interested in popular culture. Top 40 radio was a kind of sacred text to me that I studied with all the diligence that the ancient Hebrews would have studied the Pentateuch [with]. I was a very shallow person, and I carried that shallowness into college. And most of my time in college was wasted as well. I was very arrogant; I thought I knew better than anyone. I was a terrible student. I didn’t like to read.… I didn’t like to read until I got married. And something happened when I married. And you know, I was the kind of student that would brag about passing a test on a book that I hadn’t read—that’s the kind of high school student I was.

There was one thing I could do as a student. As a writer, I was a decent stylist. I had nothing of substance to say, but I was a decent stylist. And several years after I graduated high school, I was invited to teach a composition class at a very small private school in town. I was invited to be a composition teacher by some former teachers of mine in high school who knew that I was a competent stylist. And so I went to work at a very small private school teaching composition, and I was successful at it in my first year, and the second year I was asked to teach an additional class. I began teaching a history class the second year, and by the third year, I was teaching a history class, an English class, and a composition class. I just added classes year by year.

And it was during that time that a friend of mine got a job at a classical school, and he…kind of shoehorned me into this position at a classical school. But I got a job teaching classical literature having not read any classical literature myself.

I was a sham. I was a con artist. I got a classical education teaching classical literature—that’s really when it opened up to me. And the first book that ever really did it, as I described in How to Be Unlucky, was The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.

All my life I thought philosophy was an esoteric discipline that was always going to be over my head. But then I read The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, and it was the first work of philosophy that made sense to me. And that was a turning point in my life. I realized that I had to make this career as a teacher work.

And so I slowly started acquiring, on my own, the classical education that I was offered when I was younger but didn’t accept. So this meant, because I was receiving a classical education as I taught these books for the first time, that I didn’t come to these books with a strong sense of judgment over them. I didn’t condemn these books. I had no idea what the books were going to say—so I had to keep an open mind as I read them, often reading out loud, in class—for the first time—things that I was teaching! So, you know, I’m not proud of any of this—this is, you know, 12 years ago, 11 years ago now—but that really is how I got into classical education. I was a something of a scam who was forced to become authentic to keep food on the table, I guess you could say.

JB: That’s a great journey. I mean it’s refreshing, honestly, to hear that kind of transparency, and it’s just cool to hear how you got to where you are now. Going back to the whole topic of virtues: Pop culture is so strong, as it was in your teenage years—maybe all the more so now—how do you see the influence of pop culture sort of colliding with what you’re trying to teach at your school? Is there a lot of grappling that goes on? How do kids come in line with this idea that virtues are worthy of their attention?

JG: Well, one of the most important ways that I present virtue to my students is that a virtuous life is a stable life. A virtuous life does not require great personal upheavals. So, I mean, an example of this would be—I often tell my students, “Anything that you do today that you promise yourself you’re not going to do when you’re older you should just stop doing now.” So if you go off to college and you make it through college telling yourself, “I’ll drink less when I’m older,” well, you should start drinking less now. If you’re having to promise yourself these great changes in the future in order to imagine yourself stabilizing as an adult, you should try to move towards those changes that you know you’re going to have to make as soon as possible.

And one of the things about pop culture that I often try to persuade my students of is that pop culture is exceedingly ephemeral. It’s exceedingly passing; nothing lasts very long in popular culture. The most popular song in the country right now will be an embarrassment a year from now. The songs that fill the dance floor this year will clear the dance floor next year. The songs that everyone loves this year will induce groans just by mentioning them next year.

And students have often never thought about why things are popular and then they’re not anymore. Like, why is it that something was popular six months ago but it’s not popular now? And if you walk students through that, they say, “Well, you know, we got sick of it.” But why did you get sick of it? Why do we get sick of some things and not others? Why do we get sick of a Macklemore song, but 200 years later we’re still listening to Beethoven? Why is it that some things last and other things don’t? Why have we been reading Paradise Lost for over 300 years and yet the most popular books of ‘91, ‘92, ‘93, ‘94—I’m like, “No one reads these books anymore.” What is it that makes a thing last?

And one of the great things that I want students to come away from a classical education with is the sense that if you feed your soul with things that last, you will last too. You will know who you are. You will have a set of responsibilities that you subscribe to year after year, decade after decade, and when you turn 40 or 50 years old, you will not look in the mirror and say, “Who am I?” and not have a great answer to that question. Whereas if you love and feed your soul on ephemeral, sensual trash, if your soul is primarily sustained today by things that you will despise and laugh at five years from now, you will change with it, and you will not know who you are or what you’re supposed to do, because you don’t love the same things that you used to. And the kind of alienation and confusion that settles into the human heart that has not consistently loved things is what prompts people to spend their lives on terrible things, to do terrible things.

If you don’t know who you are, you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, and if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, you’re probably going to do something terrible. So I encourage students to love things that have lasted and to try to relegate the ephemeralities of popular culture to a smaller and smaller place in [their] diet of things. I’m not saying that you’re wicked if you listen to a Top 40 song, but I am saying that you don’t want to become comfortable sustaining yourself on things that feel good and don’t last.

JB: That’s well said. Thank you. Is there anything else that kind of comes to mind as you think about this topic that you feel is important for educators think about—maybe educators who…the virtues are not part of something that they’re being told to teach? How they should work that in or change their thinking?

JG: I think I would encourage educators to regularly ask themselves whether they’re playing a long game. Do you have an eye on what kind of person you want your students to be when they’re 75 years old? Or do you merely care about getting them into a line of work when they’re 19 or 22, when they graduate high school or college? Is it all about trading grades for scholarships, trading scholarships for better colleges, trading better colleges for better jobs, better jobs for better paychecks?

Then what? If it never really gets beyond better paychecks, then you’re not really playing the long game, because society proves to us over and over again that better paychecks do not satisfy the human spirit; they do not satisfy us in the long run.

So I would encourage teachers to play the long game and to consider often how you’re helping your students become old. Like what are you offering them today that will be of value to them when they retire? And if you’re not offering them anything of value when they retire, then you’re setting them up for failure in the long run. So, you know, play the short game, be faithful today, but keep an eye on the long game as well.




It Still Counts

Despite the inspirational slogans on teacher swag, it can often seem that quantified outcomes—scores, rankings, performance-based assessments—are what really matter in education. School funding and student futures depend on raising those numbers. But sometimes, the unexpected happens, pointing to the possibility that even now, the highest good may be unmeasurable.

Last week in Texas, the Waco School Board named Dr. Susan Kincannon the lone finalist in its search for a new superintendent, effectively awarding her the job. The slot was vacant due to the resignation of A. Marcus Nelson, a highly successful district leader who resigned in March after his arrest for the possession of marijuana.

When Nelson was appointed superintendent in Waco in 2017, six of the district’s schools were underperforming such that they were threatened with closure. After a year of Nelson’s tenure, five out of six of those schools had “met standard” in state accountability ratings. Waco schools earned 21 distinctions in contrast with the 12 earned the year before. An in-district charter partnership, led by Nelson, resulted in higher rates of kindergarten readiness, more students reading on grade level by third grade, and a steadily increasing number of economically disadvantaged students enrolling in higher education.

The community was ecstatic.

And then came the arrest. On March 6, 2019, Nelson was pulled over for driving in the passing lane when not passing. The officer detected the odor of marijuana, searched the car, and found less than two ounces of the drug in the passenger seat; Nelson said he had just received it from a friend for treating back pain. He was booked into a local jail and released the next morning on a personal recognizance bond.

Reaction ranged from immediate demands for his firing to pleas for forgiveness. A petition circulated containing over 5,800 signatures of people who believed Nelson should be supported and allowed to keep his job. The school board deliberated for hours and dozens of community members signed up to speak, mostly in support of the superintendent. But several dissented, including Brigitte Eichenberg, a junior at Waco High School.

“A few weeks ago in my physics class, a student I know was kicked out for using marijuana. He was taken out of Waco High,” Eichenberg told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “So, the question that I wrestled with is, What message are we sending to the students if we’re not holding our own superintendent to the same standard that we hold our own students to?”

In the end, this perspective won out. Two weeks after his arrest, Nelson resigned.

Nelson’s arrest and resignation—especially in light of his achievements as a school leader—have sparked an array of conversations about racial profiling, second chances, drug laws, and expectations of conduct. They’re important discussions, as is the practical question of whether Nelson should have kept his job. But the debate itself—as well as its outcome—proves that even within a society fixated on performance and results, personal character does matter. Adherence to society’s rules—especially by those in leadership over others—is a reasonable and widely held expectation. The rules themselves may be in dispute, but it’s broadly understood that a person of character will abide by them. James Davison Hunter, in The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, says that

character is shaped not by a cowering acquiescence to rules imposed externally but as conscious, directed obedience to truths authoritatively received and affirmed. In this way the imperatives of social life—both positive in obligation or negative in prohibition and repression—possess a moral power that we recognize as transcending ourselves. By virtue of the authority invested in it, morality is inwardly compelling; it exerts a leverage upon our will. When it speaks to us, we conform to it—not because the required conduct is necessarily attractive to us, nor because we are so inclined by some innate predisposition, but because there is some compelling influence in the authority dictating it.

Like the rest of us, those with authority must be under authority. And when they are not—in spite of achieving exceptional good for others—the fallout can be great.

Catching Character: Teachers as Honorary Dads

This past weekend, fathers were honored with steak dinners, homemade cards, and thoughtful gifts. Great dads are worthy of gratitude for sure—and so are the men, including teachers, who make sacrifices for children who aren’t their own.


Consider Vohn Lewis, a substitute teacher in Virginia. Right before the fifth-grade graduation at George Mason Elementary, a boy’s shoe came apart. Lewis realized that glue wasn’t going to solve the problem, so he took off his own shoes and let the boy wear them so he could receive his diploma in style.


“Me being me, sometimes my heart leads me to certain situations,” Lewis told WTVR. “I said you can wear my shoes, man; I wear a size 10.”


Or consider Nathan Miller of Clark Middle/High School, who noticed that the desks assigned to his middle school classroom were insufficient for the experiments he wanted students to conduct. The school didn’t have funds for new furniture, so Miller went about fashioning lab tables himself, retrofitting discarded computer desks. He realized over time that the steel-tubed frames he first constructed weren’t sturdy enough, and he has slowly replaced each frame with a wooden one.


“When people like Mr. Miller are sourcing their own things to bring a better science environment, it really shows what kind of a person he is and how much he cares about our kids,” said Assistant Principal Lauren Dado.


Not only do acts of kindness like these provide kids with things they need—they also give them striking models of what it means to be a good person. It’s great to tell kids that kindness and self-sacrifice are important, but it’s even better to show them. As James Baldwin famously said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”


This process has been referred to as “catching” by James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. In The Content of Their Character, a collection of case studies of character formation in American high schools, they write that

the articulation of a moral culture through explicit teaching is important…. What these case studies also consistently show is the importance of the informal articulation of a moral culture through the example of teachers and other adults in the school community.

And when those adults’ actions include kindness and care, strong connections are formed. Teacher Rene Trevino, a first-generation American who remembers the challenges of working while attending school, teaches science during the school year at an elementary school and during the summer at a gifted and talented camp. He has made a special commitment to kids from low-income and single-parent families; he said students sometimes slip and call him “Dad.”


“I don’t mind,” Trevino told The Monitor. “We grow strong bonds together.”


Such bonds provide kids with support and encouragement they may not receive at home; a loving connection also increases the potential impact on shaping character, as kids want to emulate those they admire. As Hunter and Olson note in their discussion of catching,

For this reason, identifying and hiring the right teachers—those who are both knowledgeable and skilled as teachers but also models of the virtues the schools wanted to instill—was a vital concern in all of the schools [studied].

To the teachers who act as honorary dads and to the principals who help hire them—many of whom are modeling strong character without even realizing it—we say “thank you.”

Scholars on Schools: Interview with Carol Ann MacGregor on Catholic High Schools

To receive a free copy of the chapter of  The Content of Their Character that corresponds with this interview, please click here and sign up for our Weekly Digest.

Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious) to homeschools and others. In this interview, sociologist Carol Ann MacGregor talks with veteran educator Angus McBeath about the two expectations that Catholic students perceive from their teachers. She also describes how teachers handle conflicts between student opinion and the church’s stance on social issues.