Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Three Cheers for the Cult of Character

Today I attended a webinar that explored the ways in which good character contributes to academic success in school-aged children.

During the webinar, participants were introduced to the work of Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, authors of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. In the book, Peterson and Seligman classify twenty-four character strengths under six virtues. For example, the Character Strength of “kindness” is under the Virtue of “humanity.” Click here for a complete listing.

The organization hosting the webinar, a national network of charter schools, integrates character development within its academic program, hinging its approach on eight of the character strengths and their corresponding behaviors.

I considered the timing of this webinar particularly fortuitous, as just earlier today I’d had lunch with a friend and we’d debated (okay, mostly I’d debated) how it’s possible for a business leader to consistently behave in ways distinct from his character. For example, let’s suppose a business leader says he values collaboration, cooperation, respect for others, and so on, but at every opportunity refuses to halt the behavior of his abusive managers when he has full knowledge of the behavior and full authority to end it. What can we say about this leader’s character? "We can say he's a wimp," my friend responded. And I say, okay, but let’s not rule out the possibility that he’s an abusive bully, too, albeit vicariously, because how else to explain his seeming indifference to others’ suffering?

I’d written earlier about Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World That Can't Stop Talking and how comforting this introvert found Cain’s text. One of the most interesting chapters in the book is “The Rise of the ‘Mighty Likable Fellow,’” which is about the cultural shift from an emphasis on a person’s character to an emphasis on his “likability.” Cain writes, “In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private…but when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.”

She goes on to say—and this is the really fascinating part, I think—“One of the most powerful lenses through which to view the transformation from Character to Personality is the self-help tradition … Many of the earliest conduct guides were religious parables like The Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678, which warned readers to behave with restraint if they wanted to make it into heaven. The advice manuals of the nineteenth century were less religious but still preached the value of a noble character… But by 1920, popular self-help guides had changed their focus from inner virtue to outer charm—‘to know what to say and how to say it,’ as one manual put it.”

So, I for one am happy that some public schools are still emphasizing character, because it’s important, and as far as I’m concerned we’ve been focusing on this “good personality” stuff for far too long. I’m also happy that studies show that nice guys and gals don’t always finish last, at least not in the classroom. 

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