Character in Crisis

The challenges of moral formation in higher education.

Michael Lamb
Michael Lamb is the executive director of the Program for Leadership and Character and Assistant Professor of Politics, Ethics, and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Wake Forest University. He has written previously on Augustine’s vision of the commonwealth, and he is the author of A Commonwealth of Hope: Augustine’s Political Thought, forthcoming with Princeton University Press.
David Henreckson
David Henreckson is Director of the Institute for Leadership and Service at Valparaiso University. He has a Ph.D in Religion from Princeton University. His first book is The Immortal Commonwealth: Covenant, Community, and Political Resistance in Early Reformed Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He is a long-time baseball obsessive, a homegrown Midwesterner, and an aspiring latter-day scholastic theologian.

David Henreckson: This past year was devastating for many institutions of higher education. Jobs were furloughed or lost. Departments shuttered. Many educators were forced to re-evaluate what is really central to our chosen vocation.

With all this impermanence, it seems a luxury to talk about “moral character,” or the old trifecta of truth, beauty, and goodness. So, in these austere days, is there still a central place for moral formation in the university? Or is that a peripheral concern when you are living in survival mode?

Michael Lamb: The set of crises that we’ve faced—a global pandemic, increasing awareness of racial injustice, economic uncertainty, and extreme political polarization—has certainly unsettled our institutions and created challenges none of us could have imagined. But from my perspective, it has only revealed the vital importance of character. Across various communities, we have seen the harmful and sometimes fatal consequences of decisions, policies, and structures that do not reflect core virtues of character: justice, empathy, humility, hope, courage, and compassion. If colleges and universities are to train leaders and citizens to respond well to such crises, we have to give them opportunities to develop the virtues they need to both survive and thrive.

It’s tempting when thinking in abstraction to dismiss character as a luxury, especially in times of crisis. But character is fundamental to how we respond properly to scarcity, injustice, and threats to our community, and it is especially important in helping us maintain constancy in the face of contingencies, ensuring that we stay true to our guiding values and purposes when outside events or pressures tempt us to abandon what we hold most dear. We need resilience, for example, to persist in the face of difficulty and courage to do what is right, especially when it requires great sacrifice. We need justice to give others what they are due, particularly when so many of our fellow citizens have been denied it. We need empathy to understand those who are different from us and compassion to attend well to those in need. We need humility to recognize the limits of our perspectives and practical wisdom to apply the lessons of history and experience to make good decisions in the context of uncertainty. And we need hope to resist temptations toward despair and do the hard work necessary to get through times of crisis.

DH: Character amid the ruins, then? Perhaps that sounds too alarmist, but what you said about the need for moral formation in uncertain times rings true for me. This past semester, as my students read the Stoics on contingency or the Confucians on chaos or James Baldwin on the fragility of love, the old texts felt more relevant than ever.

I had one student ask me a question that stuck. I’m teaching a seminar on the virtue of empathy right now, and sometimes it feels like we’re actually learning about the limits of empathy. After class one day, my student asked me directly and simply, “Why empathy?” I hope I gave her a decent answer, but I’ve been reflecting on this ever since. In the volatile times we’re talking about, How do we choose which virtues are most needed? Should I be teaching on courage and not empathy, for instance? What specific kinds of moral formation are suitable when civil society seems to be shattering into many pieces?

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