Two Senses of “Character”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Thinking back over these two posts on schools, citizenship and culture, I think there’s a further distinction I need to add. When I composed those posts, I didn’t explicitly distinguish two different ways in which schools can be said to contribute to the formation of national identity or moral character.

I was concerned to identify what I thought was a continuous historical dynamic, running from the foundation of the government school monopoly to the present day, in which the government monopoly is seen as a solution to America’s perennial anxieities over the formation of national identity and moral character. Because America has embraced religious freedom more fully than any other nation in history (far more fully than, say, the governments in continental Europe that preen themselves on their commitment to religious freedom while passing law after law after law governing the permissible boundaries of religious expression), and for other reasons as well, it is endemic to the American experiment that we are constantly worried about whether we will continue, over time, to share a common commitment to the shared moral values that define our civic order (don’t kill, don’t steal, etc.) and to the shared national identity that is the prerequisite of basic social cohesion. Many people are driven to embrace an aggressive use of government power, in the form of the school monopoly, in the name of various educational schemes designed to alleviate these anxieties. While many people on both sides of the ideological divide succumb to this temptation, I believe the temptation itself (as distinct from those who succumb to it) has its roots in the collectivist thinking that has historically been an ideological product of the left. And it can never work, for all the reasons that collectivism in every form can never work. And I still think all of that is right.

But I didn’t sufficiently distinguish between this dynamic and what one might call the “natural” role of schools in nurturing the formation of national identity and moral character in children. It was never my intention to deny that schools can, and should, nurture the formation of these attributes. What I deny is that the exercise of government power, in the form of a school monopoly or in any other way, contributes to such formation. Quite the opposite is the case, as the evidence shows – the more government gets out of the way, the better a job schools do at nurturing the formation of national identity and moral character.

To reiterate the wisdom of Silent Cal:

Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.

It is not the role of schools, but the role of government, that is the problem. What this ultimately boils down to is an insistence that schooling is a natural, and therefore prepolitical, phenomenon, not a creature of the state – and that the formation of national identity and moral character are included in the prepolitical nature of schooling. It may sound paradoxical to say that the formation of national identity is prepolitical, but it shouldn’t; indeed, the assertion that national identity precedes politics rather than following from it is basic to all liberty.

One Response to Two Senses of “Character”

  1. concerned says:

    Excellent job clarifying your thoughts! I agree that “Many people are driven to embrace an aggressive use of government power, in the form of the school monopoly, in the name of various educational schemes designed to alleviate these anxieties.” These anxieties have led to Common Core and RttT imho. You might consider expanding on this post by considering the role of Congressional authorization on educational initiatives and the appropriate application of our nation’s laws.

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