For sociologist James Davison Hunter, the defining problem of contemporary society is moral education and character formation--or, rather, the lack
of meaningful moral education and real character development. In Hunter's view, the titular death of character is a result of the disappearance of the conditions that make moral education possible in the first place. It is a consequence of overwhelming historical forces that defy individual moral agency; multinational capitalism, pluralism, social mobility, contemporary media, and popular culture all play a role.
Hunter understands the roots of moral education and character to be essentially social--involving the complex weave of social, familial, and institutional relationships that are the fabric of culture--and embedded in historical understanding, in shared traditions, and in collective memories. He is skeptical of current agents for moral education who come in the guise of developmental psychologists, neoclassical advocates (traditionalists), and communitarians. Arguing that contemporary American society is unwilling to pay the price associated with meaningful character renewal, he writes, "To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels.... We want character but without unyielding conviction.... We want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend.... We want decency without the authority to insist upon it." --Eric de Place
From Publishers Weekly
Turning his philosophical gaze again to questions of cultural importance, critic Hunter (Culture Wars) takes on morality and character. He contends (in an analysis that unfortunately remains somewhat abstract and theoretical) that a sense of objective morality, of right and wrong, has been replaced by a psychological approach to values: instead of being taught that there are absolutes by which they must abide, children are taught, "You'll feel better, if you do the right thing." Then Hunter lays out the implicationsAhaving replaced moral concepts of good and evil with therapeutic categories of desire and feeling, we have lost the ability to instill a sense of character in young people. Character-building depends on self-restraint, yet our focus today is on emotional self-fulfillment, not restraint. Thus, schools inevitably teach a kind of moral vagueness. By examining the changes during this century in language used by groups such as the Girl Scouts, Hunter traces the historical emergence of psychologized values fromAas he puts itAtheir origins in theological ones. He then examines the backlash attempts among some educators to recover objective valuesAand concludes that their efforts are doomed to fail. Indeed, we're looking for inspiration on the wrong side of the universal-particular axis: artificially mandated universal values will never save us, he writes. Only particulars, shaped by the specific histories of the communities that practice them, will. In the end, Hunter's premise is too sweeping to ring true. As a result, his volume is better at diagnosing the problems in contemporary education than solving them. (June)
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