The Rediscovery of Character
David Brooks with a very important op ed in today's NYT about James Q. Wilson and his research on character, which (no surprise) is CRITICALLY important to the outcomes of individuals, communities and countries. KIPP and other top "no excuses" schools REALLY understand this and spend as much (if not more) time focusing on this vs. straight academics.
Wilson worked within this tradition. But during the 1960s and '70s, he noticed that the nation's problems could not be understood by looking at incentives. Schools were expanding, but James Coleman found that the key to education success was the relationships at home and in the neighborhood. Income transfers to the poor increased, but poor neighborhoods did not improve; instead families disintegrated.
The economy boomed and factory jobs opened up, but crime rates skyrocketed. Every generation has an incentive to spend on itself, but none ran up huge deficits until the current one. Some sort of moral norms prevented them.
"At root," Wilson wrote in 1985 in The Public Interest, "in almost every area of important concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers or voters and public officials."
When Wilson wrote about character and virtue, he didn't mean anything high flown or theocratic. It was just the basics, befitting a man who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1940s: Behave in a balanced way. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Cooperate. Be decent.
He did not believe that virtue was inculcated by prayer in schools. It was habituated by practicing good manners, by being dependable, punctual and responsible day by day.
Wilson lived in an individualistic age, but he emphasized that character was formed in groups. As he wrote in "The Moral Sense," his 1993 masterpiece, "Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do."
Wilson set out to learn how groups created a good order, why that order sometimes frayed.
March 5, 2012