“Children must now develop a sensitive yet sturdy internal compass to navigate the currents of modern life and global culture. It is increasingly clear that this compass must be moral as well as intellectual. This is precisely what makes The Content of Their Character so timely and important.”

Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

The Content of Their Character:
Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation 

Edited by best-selling author James Davison Hunter! 

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The Content of Their Character

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 • homeschool

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 examined and unified in 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 result is a stimulating, thought-provoking, and ultimately inspiring book for educators, policymakers, concerned parents, and scholars—a groundbreaking work that points to a new model for understanding the moral and civic formation of young people at a time of unprecedented challenges for American democracy.

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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 majority of the research about charter schools concerns academic achievement—specifically, whether charter school students are graduating, going to college, and passing standardized tests at the same rates as students in traditional public schools with similar student populations. How does this affect the ideals of those schools? 

About the author: Dr. Patricia Maloney is assistant professor of sociology at Texas Tech University. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from Yale University.

About the chapter: Approximately 12 million students attended rural public schools in the United States in fall 2010, and in 2014, Paul Hill noted that schools in remote areas served more students than the nation’s 20 largest urban districts combined. How do schools in small communities in this large demographic cast a unique vision of character?

About the author: Richard Fournier is Director of District Partnerships for Transforming Education. He is completing his doctorate on principal leadership at Boston University.

About the chapter: Urban public schools have, since their founding, been concerned with promoting social mobility and remedying inequality through academic instruction and the imparting of skills. Nevertheless, urban public schools have also, since their founding, been concerned with promoting morality and citizenship. How are they doing that now?

About the author: Dr. Jeffrey Guhin is assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Los Angeles. From 2013 to 2016, he was the Postdoctoral Abd el-Kader Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He earned his Ph.D. with distinction in sociology from Yale University.

About the chapter: Noted education scholar and public intellectual Diane Ravitch has argued that Catholic schools come closer than public schools to the common school ideal of producing similar educational results for students of different backgrounds. Do they also outpace their peers in civic outcomes? 

About the author: Dr. Carol Ann MacGregor is an assistant professor of sociology at Loyola University. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University.

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.

About the chapter: Private schools with an Islamic character and mission are a recent phenomenon in North America. The focus of this study was Islamic schools established by immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East, mostly over the last 30 years. These immigrant schools have not been extensively researched. 

About the author: Dr. Charles Glenn is professor emeritus of educational Leadership at Boston University. Dr. Glenn received his A.B. and Ed.D. from Harvard, and his Ph.D. from Boston University.

About the chapter: In this study, we defined “prestigious independent schools” as private high schools that charge substantially more in tuition than surrounding nonpublic schools. The prestigious independent school sector includes a wide variety of distinctive high school structures: the schools may be religious or secular, and they may be single-sex, co-ed, day, or boarding schools. How do these elite schools prepare students for responsibility?

About the author: Dr. Kathryn Wiens is Director of Schools for Applied and Innovative Learning (SAIL) at Delaware County Christian School. She received her Ph.D. in education from Boston University.

About the chapter: Alternative pedagogical schools – both public and private – often are attempts to realize a full-orbed vision of education that includes a guiding mission or philosophy and fairly precise guidelines for school structure and teaching methods. For this reason, this “alternative pedagogy” sector affords insights into the impact of school organizational culture on opportunities for moral and civic formation of youth.

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: As proponents of homeschooling like to point out, education was predominantly conducted in the home for most of history, until mandatory state-sponsored schooling emerged in Western countries in the 19th century. Prior to that, most formal and informal education occurred in the home, around the hearth or table, led by parents or, if the family was so privileged, a tutor. So how do homeschooling families form character in the 21st century?

About the author: Dr. Jeffrey Dill is affiliate professor of sociology and liberal studies in the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Virginia. 

About THE EDITORS


JAMES DAVISON HUNTER
James Davison Hunter is the LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia. He is also the founder and executive director of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, a leading interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community. The recipient of numerous literary awards, he has authored or coauthored nine books, including Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America and The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil.


RYAN S. OLSON
Ryan S. Olson is the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and a fellow in late antiquity at the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University. Author of Tragedy, Authority, and Trickery: The Poetics of Embedded Letters in Josephus, he has written articles and essays on Roman history, late antiquity, and modern character education. He has also served as the program director for educational reform at The Kern Family Foundation.

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