In a passionate piece in The Atlantic that criticizes all corners of our current political world, Eliot A. Cohen diagnoses us all as suffering from a character crisis. While there are many “forces and phenomena in play,” he writes, “it is character that remains the issue that confronts us in almost every story about national politics . . . ”
“Of all the elements that constitute character, courage is the essential one. Physical courage is in part innate, in part something that can be inculcated by training and experience. The courage to take responsibility emanates more naturally from ambition. What is rarer and more difficult than either is moral courage.”
“As historian Allan Nevins put it, ‘moral courage is allied with the other traits that make up character: honesty, deep seriousness, a firm sense of principle, candor, resolution.’ And of moral courage there is an unquestioned deficit today—in the halls of Congress where the Republican Party has yielded what once were its values to an adventurer in the White House; in a White House presided over by a bully and a braggart who infects even upright generals with his breathtaking dishonesty; in universities where administrators and faculty yield to student mobs baying to be protected from uncomfortable ideas and unpopular individuals, and elsewhere.”
However, research from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture over the last five years would suggest that this crisis of character has been a long time in coming. Dr. Jeffrey Dill, in the “Interview Report” for the 2012 “Culture of American Families” report, noted that “. . . throughout all of the interviews—3,500 pages of transcripts—the words ‘character’ and ‘virtue’ were only used a total of 26 times by 12 different respondents (by way of contrast, the word ‘independent’ and variations of it were used 173 times by 60 respondents). We intentionally did not ask about character directly because we wanted to see if it would emerge organically. Parents clearly cared about the character of their children, but instead of using words like ‘character’ or ‘virtue,’ they used descriptive words like ‘good heart,’ ‘nice,’ ‘self-respect,’ and ‘self- reliance.'”
“Are these words adequate substitutes for ‘character,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘humility,’ ‘patience,’ ‘wisdom,’ or ‘courage’? That is difficult to measure, but words and language do convey meaning and ultimately shape human perceptions of reality. The words we use have the power to create the worlds we inhabit . . . This is especially true in the context of socializing the young. The words parents now employ . . . connote softer, more individualistic, and therapeutic meanings. We might think of them as less commanding or authoritative. The tension—or paradox—lies in the gap between the authority required to do what parents say they want—to form their children into the right kinds of people—and the language they use to describe it.”
Cohen concludes his essay by urging us “to recover an admiration of imperfect civic courage by flawed people, even in occasionally dubious causes. That is best done by returning to our own history, not in a spirit of hero worship, but of respect for the virtues that make free government possible. It is an educational motif out of style, and desperately needed.”
One way of doing that is to read the stories that can be found in great literature, both for children and for adults. In those stories we will find the embodiment of character in which we can participate, stories that give us a purpose greater than we find within us. Another resource is available from the Jubilee Centre: a secondary school lesson on the virtue of courage.