In a media landscape awash in flame wars and polarizing punditry, it’s a bit surprising that the topic of character formation is making a comeback. “Building character” is the stuff of childhood chores and onerous school projects, completed out of duty and little delight. Yet according to new research presented in the book The Fabric of Character, published by the DC-based Philanthropy Roundtable, character formation is a top concern among today’s leaders and charitable givers across the ideological spectrum. According to researcher Anne Snyder, anyone paying attention to social trends in the West recognizes that “the conditions under which good character is forged are in trouble—weakened as much by the decline of traditional institutions as by a culture that promotes ‘I’ before ‘we,’ pleasure before purpose, self-expression before submission to a source of moral wisdom beyond oneself.”
In the book, Snyder highlights several institutions—including schools, neighborhood renewal projects, and the Boy Scouts—as case studies of how organizations strengthen the moral fiber of their members. Snyder, the newly named editor-in-chief of Comment magazine, recently spoke with CT about why faith-based institutions are particularly good at teaching character.
When I hear the word “character,” I think of the dad in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip who is always making Calvin shovel snow because it builds character. It’s not a sexy topic. Yet as you note, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in it. Why?
I started this particular project for the Philanthropy Roundtable in early 2016. I used to joke that Donald Trump is a huge gift to my work because suddenly a lot of people who I never would have anticipated being interested in character, regardless of where they fell politically—even if they voted for him—began to say, “Actually, we really do care about it in our leaders.” When I began figuring out how to build a bridge between philanthropists and practice, a lot of people wanted to talk to me because they had a lot of worries about what was going on at the top of national leadership.
More broadly, as people look at social trends—everything from rising mental illness to widening and debilitating anxiety, particularly among young people, to what I would call hyper-emphasis on achievement alone as the only way to define what the good life is—a variety of those social trends have raised alarm bells about how we’re raising our kids and telling them what to value. Whether people would say there’s a moral vacuum, there’s definitely been a realization that we haven’t attended to the whole person. As a society, we’ve somehow not attended to the deeper, often invisible moral fiber of life.
In a media landscape awash in flame wars and polarizing punditry, is character formation is making a comeback?
— Christianity Today (@CTmagazine) May 21, 2019