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Origins of Character
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James Davison Hunter

      . . . cultural observer. Dr. Hunter is Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, where he is William R. Kenan Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies. Author of a wide range of essays and articles, Dr. Hunter's seven books addressing the problems of meaning and moral discourse in contemporary American culture include Culture Wars and The Death of Character.

Excerpts3:25 secs

      Moral education that works is not a program, according to James Davison Hunter, author of Culture Wars and The Death of Character. Moral education is a web of adult authority that extends from the family to the schools to youth organizations to a range of socializing institutions in which children live and move and work and play. It's a web tight enough that children won't fall between the cracks, one in which children hear the same messages, reinforced again and again and again.

      Dr. Hunter is Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, where he is also Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies. His many articles, essays and books address the problems of meaning and moral discourse in contemporary American culture.

      Morality and the moral life are about the concrete circumstances of everyday life, not passing on abstract universals, says this widely regarded cultural observer. He cites more than 10,000 studies which have evaluated moral education programs and found them profoundly inadequate. They don't work, he says. Neither do committees set up to decide common values to teach children, Dr. Hunter counsels.

      But Dr. Hunter draws hope from these failures. We can learn from what does not work to create a community in which Good and Bad regain a place in the moral discussion. Yes, it's hard work, he realizes. But Dr. Hunter also sees this path as an affirmation, a chance to embrace ideals. And the moral life has never been easy, he reminds us. Every ethical system that ever existed on the planet has been based on an ethic of renunciation, the capacity to say, "No!" to some things and "Yes!" to others, he says.

      Morality and the sacred have never been generic, he observes. They are enacted within people's lives and embodied in real communities. One cannot be moral alone, he says, it happens in community, even in a society where the Self is Sovereign. Morality also require discipline, says Dr. Hunter.

      Morality has to be practiced and reinforced and practical. That's tough right now, he admits, because present day institutions that socialize children are weak and fragmented. So the first step he prescribes is to take a serious look at how we might strengthen our institutions in ways that interconnect them with each other. Yes, that's hard in today's context where we have a marketplace that by its very nature dissolves those kinds of communal ties. But authority has to be embodied, not asserted, he is convinced.

[This Program was recorded October 3, 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

James Davison Hunter tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell why individuals still have profound and meaningful roles in the current era, in the face of powerful institutions and history itself.

Conversation 2

Dr. Hunter compares being morally tone-deaf to being morally musical, across religious traditions. He addresses the challenge of people maintaining a constant course, with integrity, in the face of life's uncertainty, confusion and crises. The West has a kind of collective amnesia, he says, pointing to once-powerful animating visions that came out of Athens and Jerusalem. He illustrates from the American experience. People are absolutely a product of what has gone before, he says, and expands on the larger social, institutional, and cultural context that informs the present moment.

Conversation 3

Psychology's current dominant role as a cultural force in the West is considered. Dr. Hunter traces how psychology's therapeutic perspective overtook religion. We don't live in an amoral time, he says, we live in a time in which the morality upon which we do rely has been emptied of all that makes it binding on the conscience and compelling within communities. The idea of a "sovereign self" is particularly powerful in a very individualistic society, Dr. Hunter observes, explaining how the two ideas reinforce each other. Today's "values," he says, are truths divested of their commanding character: they don't tell people what to do and they do shape a morality informed by the marketplace. He elaborates.

Conversation 4

The West no longer has a sense of the sources that sustain inherited ideals of benevolence and justice, Dr. Hunter contends. He talks about the current practice of trying to teach "virtue" in the classroom. American culture and its institutions are fragmented and disintegrating, he contends, and gives a host of examples. We are witnessing a time when Western Civilization, characterized by Athens and Jerusalem, is drawing to a close, he believes. He assures us that no one has any idea what will come next

Conversation 5

This is the first civilization that does not define itself against an authority outside of the individual, says Dr. Hunter, and there's no going back. He explores the implications of this enormous change and describes the current backlash. Even those trying to resist contemporary moral psychology are enveloped by it, he says, pointing to moral education curriculums based on self-esteem and therapeutic well-being. It is impossible to raise moral children or to be moral by oneself -- both require the larger community and a wide range of institutions, he says. Instilling morality and the moral life is not a matter of simply passing on abstract universals, Dr. Hunter insists. He cites over 10,000 studies that show that moral education programs fail.

Conversation 6

What might succeed can be learned by studying today's failed moral education programs, Dr. Hunter suggests. He outlines a web of adult and societal authority needed to do the job. We must "live" what we want people to do, not "tell" them, he insists. He assures us there has never been a generic morality.


Dr. Hunter has done us all a great service by thinking clearly, and without political agenda, about the challenges facing contemporary American culture, then sharing his insights with us all. We thank him.

Related Links:
James Davison Hunter's book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, is published by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Dr. Hunter’s website at the University of Virginia.

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