In 2013, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia sent a talented team of scholars into the field to research ten sectors of American high schools:
urban public • rural public • charter public •
evangelical Protestant • Catholic • Jewish • Islamic •
prestigious independent • alternative pedagogy •
The goal? To visit a small but diverse sample of the schools over the course of many months to witness how they addressed one of the original purposes of public schooling in America: shaping the character of their students.
The researchers’ findings are summarized in the new book The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. While academic in tone, this one-of-a-kind volume is accessible to the general reader and peppered with evocative stories and fascinating excerpts from interviews with teachers, administrators, and students. Chapters on each sector provide new insights and unexpected results, such as
• How “respect” can have one meaning in urban public schools and an entirely different meaning in rural public schools
• Which class Catholic school students mentioned most often when asked where they explored moral questions in school (Hint: It wasn’t religion or government)
• Which two sectors frequently celebrated military service as a public commitment (Hint: One was public, and one was religious)
• Which sector’s students provided a “staggering” amount of community service (Hint: Your guess is probably wrong)
• Which sector of schools arguably pursued just one virtue—but embraced a multitude of them as well
• How Islamic school students seemed confident they would fit into American society despite reservations about some aspects of American culture
The findings are explored and unified by essays by the book’s editors, James Davison Hunter, distinguished sociologist and best-selling author, and Ryan S. Olson, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The results point to a new model for understanding the moral and civic formation of young people at a time of unparalleled challenges to American democracy.
Explore all the chapters
About the chapter: Religious schools may ground moral and civic formation in the social and cultural context of a particular church, synagogue, or mosque, though this is becoming less common. Catholic schools have been built on several of these bases, including ethnic, community, and, increasingly, academic commitments. Evangelical Protestant schools are unlike any of these.
About the author: Dr. David Sikkink is associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the lead researcher on both the Pedagogical and Evangelical Protestant sectors. Dr. Sikkink received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
About the chapter: The Jewish day school sector is divided into subsectors differing considerably in religious orientation, educational goals, and comfort with American popular culture and mores. The commonality of these schools is that they all offer a mix of general studies and Judaica, ranging from one or two school periods daily to a full day devoted to Jewish studies. How do these curricular choices shape the character of students?
About the author: Dr. Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University.
JAMES DAVISON HUNTER
James Davison Hunter is the Labrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He has written eight books, edited three books, and published a wide range of essays, articles, and reviews all variously concerned with the problem of meaning and moral order in a time of political and cultural change in American life.
RYAN S. OLSON
Ryan S. Olson is Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He served as Fellow in Late Antiquity at the Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University, and received his doctorate in classics from Oxford University in 2007. His book, Tragedy, Authority, and Trickery, a study of classical narrative epistolography in its historical, literary, and cultural contexts, was published in 2010 by Harvard University Press.
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