“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!
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.
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. 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.