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Does Character Matter?

Does Character Matter?: Essays on Opportunity and the American Dream

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 68
  • Book Info
    Does Character Matter?
    Book Description:

    Sixteen thoughtful writers consider character cultivation. Richard Reeves introduces this collection of short essays with a challenge: "I defy you to find a richer set of writings on the philosophical, empirical, and practical issues raised by a focus on character, and in particular its relationship to questions of opportunity."

    The evidence? The works of sixteen thoughtful skeptics of and enthusiasts for the public endeavor of character cultivation. The authors in this collection provide differing political perspectives to give at least equal weight to the moral dimensions of character as well as strong demands to honor individual free will and individual development.

    This collection includes essays that draw attention to the gendered nature of character formation; stress the importance of culture, social norms; and explain the impact of chronic stress in the early years. Still others argue that the construction of a policy agenda for the cultivation of character poses a stark challenge to the partisan culture of contemporary politics, but may also alleviate it by reinvigorating community life.

    As Reeves writes, don't take his word for it. Read the essays and see for yourself.


    Introduction, Richard V. Reeves

    Skills and Scaffolding, James Heckman

    Character Is Experience, Joseph Fishkin

    Free Will: The Missing Link between Character and Opportunity, Martin E. P. Seligman

    Conscientiousness: A Primer, Brent Roberts

    Chronic Adversity Shapes Character, Ross Thompson

    Responsible Parenting: A Test of Character?, Isabel Sawhill

    Gendered Character, Jen Lexmond

    Women, Character and Competition, Carmit Segal

    Cultures Build Character, Stuart Butler

    Grit and Community, Mark Dunkelman

    Schools of Character, Dominic Randolph

    Morality before Performance, Marvin Berkowitz

    Authority and Morality Build Character, Lawrence M. Mead

    We Need Empathy, Too, Amitai Etzioni

    Character Education: A Cautionary Note, Mike Rose

    The Thorny Politics of Mobility, Lanae Erickson Hatalsky

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-2748-4
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. ii-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-1)

    This is a superb collection of essays. I’m biased, of course. But I defy you to find a richer set of writings on the philosophical, empirical and practical issues raised by a focus on character, and in particular its relationship to questions of opportunity.

    I am not going to provide a condensed version of the essays. For one thing, it would not be possible to do them justice. Each one is an intellectual pemmican in any case: sharp and to the point. Suffice to say that there are enthusiasts for the public endeavor of character cultivation (Heckman and Randolph) as...

  4. Skills and Scaffolding
    (pp. 2-5)

    Mainstream economic models treat individuals as passive vessels into which human capital investments are poured in the hope of boosting cognitive abilities. The persistence of this approach, most clearly articulated by Becker and Tomes,¹ is frustrating given recent progress in understanding the complex dynamics of skill development. Too much emphasis continues to be placed on one side of the human capital coin—namely cognitive skills, variously equated with IQ and scores on achievement tests—to the detriment of character skills.

    In the Becker-Tomes model, the only limitations on investments in the human capital of children by parents come in the...

  5. Character Is Experience
    (pp. 6-9)

    Much of the modern debate about equal opportunity has been taken up with the following question: which elements of a person’s successes and failures are the result of her inner abilities or inner character, and which are the result, instead, of experience—in particular, the advantages and disadvantages the person soaked up from her family, school, and society?

    In general, conservatives insist that inner abilities and character are most of the story. Liberals insist that it’s mostly social advantages and disadvantages. But both sides agree that this is the right question.

    And both sides are wrong.

    There is no such...

  6. Free Will Is the Missing Link between Character and Opportunity
    (pp. 10-14)

    The standard view of today’s social reformers is that building character plus building opportunity will break the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. I think this view, while laudable and a big improvement over the failed strategy of merely building opportunity, is still seriously incomplete. The missing link is thatgood character can take advantage of opportunity only by free will, and free will only works through future-mindedness. This view sounds quaint to twenty-first century ears and so is in need of a history and a justification.

    Why did science give up the notion of free will?...

  7. Conscientiousness: A Primer
    (pp. 15-19)

    The personality trait of conscientiousness reflects the propensity to be self-controlled, responsible to others, hardworking, orderly, and rule abiding (Roberts, Jackson, Fayard, Edmonds, and Meints, 2009). It is not a singular entity, but rather a family of dispositions inclusive of specific facets, such as industriousness, self-control, orderliness, responsibility, and conventionality. And as a domain, it subsumes current popular constructs such as grit and delay of gratification (Roberts et al., 2014).

    Conscientiousness predicts health and longevity, occupational success, marital stability, academic achievement, and even wealth (for a review, see Jackson and Roberts, in press). As a result, conscientiousness has become an...

  8. Chronic Adversity Shapes Character
    (pp. 20-23)

    A newborn enters a world of unknowns. Is the world safe or dangerous? Are people nurturing or threatening? How will my needs be addressed? It will be many years before children can articulate answers to questions like these. But because their well-being depends on it, even newborns begin adapting to the conditions into which they were born based on questions like these.

    This begins even before birth. The mother’s nutritional state influences fetal growth and metabolic rate in ways that can have life-long consequences. Mothers who are chronically stressed during pregnancy give birth to newborns who are more reactive to...

  9. Responsible Parenting: A Test of Character
    (pp. 24-27)

    A well-functioning liberal democracy is based on the everyday practice of civic virtues or what in another context we might call character. Without those virtues, the amount of intervention required to promote social and individual welfare, including upward mobility, would be inefficient, and overly intrusive. Government may require that children be vaccinated or attend school, but unless parents see the need for this and voluntarily cooperate with such requirements, they would not work in practice. Government can establish laws governing taxes or safe driving speeds but it cannot have an auditor for every citizen or a policeman on every corner...

  10. Gendered Character
    (pp. 28-31)

    Emma Watson, actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador, launched a new campaign, #HeForShe. In a landmark speech to the UN on gender equality she argued that the pressure for men to be “masculine” and for women to be “feminine” is limiting self-expression and opportunity for everyone.

    Much attention is paid by policy makers to structures of class, race, and income that inhibit social mobility: our freedom to change, adapt, or improve our position in society. There has been less focus on how individual’s own qualities, capacities, and dispositions shape their life chances. But intuitively, we know that a resilient, motivated, and...

  11. Women, Character, and Competition
    (pp. 32-35)

    Individuals who are inclined to consistently work hard and can defer gratification have better grades in school, are more likely to have higher educational attainment, and higher wages—controlling for their cognitive abilities. This is just one example of how skills other than cognitive ones help to explain success in school and in the workplace, as documented in a growing research literature.

    A direct policy implication of these findings is that fostering such non-cognitive skills may help increase social mobility. Given the recent findings from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project that men are more socially mobile than women (i.e., they earn...

  12. Cultures Build Character
    (pp. 36-39)

    Why does one young woman play the lottery each week while a similarly-situated one squirrels away the same amount in her bank account? Why does one young man drop out of college after his first failing grade while his roommate persists after the same setback? Most people believe “character” influences such decisions—decisions that are strong predictors of whether someone will rise up the economic ladder or be stuck near the bottom.

    The brain’s hard-wiring may have a significant influence on character development. But it is also true that the “culture” of a neighborhood play a critical role. By culture...

  13. Grit and Community
    (pp. 40-42)

    As more research emerges on the roots and substance of “character,” the public policy implications are coming into clearer view. The interplay between what Richard Reeves has termed “character gap” and the “opportunity gap” is undeniable. Those who are unable to withstand emotional impulses are less likely to climb the economic ladder. More hopefully, we may be uncovering ways to imbue future generations with additional “grit.”

    But we are ignoring part of the story. To date, our focus has been on studying the influence of character on theindividual. Indeed, to the degree there’s been mention of any social impact,...

  14. Schools of Character
    (pp. 43-47)

    Here are two predictions: there will be ever-increasing change and a growing demand for greater equality and opportunity. We must therefore educate for change and opportunity. This learning cannot just be about knowledge, but must also be about capacities that are adaptable and provide one with a “toolkit for change.”

    As society has become more rational and more enlightened, we have also come to believe in a division of labor and specialization; however, this focus has also brought about a loss of our ability to see human nature as a whole. This lack of wholeness is one reason we encounter...

  15. Morality before Performance
    (pp. 48-51)

    The question addressed in this essay collection is “the connection between the development of individual character strengths and the broader societal project of promoting greater intergenerational mobility.” As a developmental and educational psychologist, I am more concerned with the holistic development of children; that is, of their broad psychological flourishing. Conceptually, we can deconstruct the child into psychological parts, such as “individual character strengths.” But in real life we are complex integrated organisms. Empirically, we can approximate the impact of particular influences on specific areas of development and functioning. But life also tends to have a robust impact on us,...

  16. Authority and Morality Build Character
    (pp. 52-55)

    In “The New Politics of Character” (National Affairs, summer 2014) Richard Reeves shows that the poor must demonstrate “character” (prudence, hard work, persistence) to overcome their disadvantages and get ahead. However, he also argues that they will do so only if opportunity is available to them. Especially, they must be able to get well-paying jobs. If they cannot, we should not be surprised if they fail to get through school, work hard, or avoid crime and unwed pregnancy.

    But does character depend on opportunity? I know of no evidence that supports this, and a good deal that does not. For...

  17. We Need Empathy, Too
    (pp. 56-59)

    Character” has been used in American political discourse as a code word for arguing that if people are suffering—are poor, unemployed, or hooked on drugs or alcohol—it is because they have not been brought up properly and thus have a poor character, especially one that is short on self-government and controlling impulses. These people are assumed by conservative thinkers to come from broken homes. But people of good character can lift themselves up by their own boot straps, make their own opportunities. Look at small businesses, or startups.

    In contrast, liberal thinkers emphasize the role of opportunity. They...

  18. Character Education: A Cautionary Note
    (pp. 60-63)

    One of the surest claims one can make about leading a successful life is that qualities such as determination, perseverance, self-control, and flexibility matter a great deal. In American education, these qualities often get labeled as “character,” and there is a rapidly growing interest in developing character.

    As I watch the 21st century character education take off, I worry. My worry is based on decades of working with low-income children and adults and watching new ideas—or, often, old wine in new bottles—capture our attention. I have two concerns in particular: the reductive way qualities of character get defined;...

  19. The Thorny Politics of Mobility
    (pp. 64-67)

    Within the span of a single week earlier this year, three of the most frequently mentioned Presidential aspirants in their respective parties gave major addresses on poverty. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) each implored our nation—and their fellow policymakers in Washington, D.C.—to make changes that will help those at the bottom of the economic ladder become more upwardly mobile. Leaders in both political parties are calling for action to address the fact that 7 in 10 children born in the bottom economic quintile will never even break through to the...