When I read Robert Pondiscio’s fine book on the Success Academy (which I reviewed here), I noted one important omission. The teachers at Success Academy told their students the importance of working hard in school and controlling their tempers—but there seemed to be no effort to shape the students to be admirable people.

Given the viciousness of our current political conversations, is it possible to teach people to be virtuous? I was reminded of this question by two articles in the Washington Post. The first, by religion reporter Michelle Boorstein, is about a national movement to teach people compassion. The second, an opinion piece by DePaul University political scientist David Lay Williams, reminds us that we used to want our politicians to be virtuous, and now we don’t care about virtue as much as our ancestors did.

From the dawn of ancient Greece in the sixth century B.C. until the 1960s, one of the subjects in school was studying the lives of people who were considered moral exemplars. The idea was that, if a student examined the life of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, he’d learn what a virtuous life meant.

Williams reminds us that the great classical philosophers taught that the best forms of government were ones where the virtuous ruled. Plutarch tells us that Lycurgus, the founder of Sparta, provided students with “proofs and examples of good conduct” in order that “from their youth up, the people would hardly fail to be gradually formed and advanced in virtue.” Both Plato and Aristotle thought that rulers should be virtuous.

The Founders agreed with the ancients that government should be grounded in virtue.

Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 76 that the American republic was grounded in the premise “that there is a portion of virtue and honor among mankind, which may be a reasonable foundation of confidence.”

Today, there are very few people who insist that virtue can be taught or that politicians can be virtuous. A hundred years ago, students read Aristotle to learn how to be virtuous; today we have Google’s Project Aristotle, which teaches how teams of employees can be more effective. I think there are several reasons for this: the gradual secularization of society, the reduction of reliance upon authority, and the gradual elimination of curricula that doesn’t have anything to do with test scores.

Boorstein’s article says that there is a “compassion industry” and doesn’t give any examples of how schools are teaching compassion. Most of her examples of teaching compassion involve workplace bromides, spouted by executives who had previously adapted Six Sigma certification and want to embrace the fad of 2020.

LinkedIn, for example, has a director of mindfulness and compassion, Scott Shute. Among his accomplishments was changing how the company promotes the jobs on its site, so that instead of calculating how many jobs there are on the site, they now report how many people get jobs. This, Shute says, turns “a self-centered metric” into “an other-centered metric.” But how can this change make LinkedIn’s employees or users be more compassionate?

DONORS PROMOTING COMPASSION

Are there ways donors can use their dollars to encourage virtue and compassion in our country? I’ll offer one good way and one dubious way donors can do this.

It’s a fad to support organizations that hold events where conservatives and liberals sit in a room wearing the intellectual equivalent of HAZMAT suits. Washington’s Arena Stage has a series of “civil dialogues” that are “curated and moderated” by George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni with the goal that “people of diverse viewpoints can have fruitful dialogues with one another.” Strip away the gas and what you find are public policy panels with two liberal wonks and two conservative wonks, except the wonks on the panels are called “dialogue starters.” I highly doubt that providing entertainment for wonk-loving inside-the-Beltway audiences advances civil society.

A more fruitful path is provided in an article Boorstein linked to, published in Scientific American Mind in 2011, describing research conducted by a team led by University of Michigan psychologist Sara H. Konrath. The researchers studied scores of students who took a well-known test called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index and found that over a 30-year period, 75 percent of students in 2010 were less empathetic than those of 30 years before, which meant they were less likely to agree with statements such as “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.”

The researchers also found a correlation with the decline of reading among the young, with, in particular, the number of college-age students who read literature for pleasure suffering a sharp decline. So it might well be a good task for philanthropy to support and encourage college courses where students read morally complex fiction and then discuss what they read.

A second task is one for all the centers that have affiliated with universities and that provide a way for libertarian and conservative scholars to be affiliated there. Why can’t the professors affiliated with these centers teach great works to people in their community?

Thirty years ago, the Bradley Foundation sponsored the Bradley Fellows program at the Heritage Foundation. The fellows, many of whom were professors on sabbatical, taught classes for adults in the evenings. I took as many of them as I could and loved exploring Aristotle, Thucydides, and Hayek.

No one has tried to revive the Conservative Curriculum, which was a very good idea. Why can’t donors to college centers encourage this? I bet there is a hunger among adults to study great books—and it may well be that one consequence of teaching what great writers had to say about compassion and virtue that students become more compassionate and virtuous.

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