Illusions and Realities — The ’80s: Character Returns

Bill Cosby once said, in one of his nightclub routines, that he was one of nine children, and until he was eleven he thought his name was “shut-up.”

In an age of small families, that was a side-splitting line. A child allowed to be unknown? In our time, every child is examined, measured, weighed, tested, and registered, hundreds of times a year. Everything about the child is checked out, from eyes and teeth to the tissue between his toes, from I.Q. to psychological profile. One forgets how little “individual” attention was paid to children “in the old days.”

They were tough on children, then. The teacher could give a kid a whack for spelling lazily, without attention. Children were expected not only to learn but to memorize. Also, to write with Palmer penmanship, to diagram sentences, to stand up and recite (even if spitballs were thrown — even if lads were ejected from the room for throwing spitballs). Everyone, in those days, hated school. But everyone respected it. Teachers were serious people.

So were parents. “Honor thy father and mother.” You had better honor them!

“Confirm thy soul in self-control,” the hymn to America commanded.

“Self-mastery” was the Emersonian imperative, repeated in the textbooks.

Once upon a time, the United States was a serious culture. Distinguished leaders spoke of discipline, self- control, and self-improvement; Teddy Roosevelt spouted maxims more often than he rode a horse. During the Depression, maxims were a heavy industry.

Meanwhile, our culture, slowly at first, was becoming “progressive.” In private collars, the starch began to dissolve. (At the college where he taught, the minister who coined the phrase “the social gospel” had run off with the directress of women’s athletics.) The country chose increasingly to solve “social problems” apart from private virtue.

This was like addressing the problems faced by individual persons from outside-in. Treat the outside of the problems and neglect the inside.

From 1960 until 1980, federal spending on “social welfare” jumped by $15 billion every year, from $40 billion to $244 billion. In the 16 years from 1960 to 1976, a new federal program designed to help young people went into effect, on average, every month, until there were 260 such.

Over twenty years, SAT scores fell by 4 points a year— a total of 85 points. Births to teenagers nearly doubled, not counting the fact that abortions among teenagers also nearly doubled. Teenage deaths from auto accidents doubled. Juvenile arrest more than doubled.

Elementary school children recently told a pollster for Weekly Reader — elementary school children — that the most serious problem in their school is: drugs.

Nonetheless, ours is a culture that still claims to believe in the dignity of every single individual. What we have forgotten is the basis of personal dignity: each person’s character.

Character, the key to human life, is composed of the repertoire of moral and intellectual skills acquired by each person: skills of reading, writing, and doing; skills of desire, application, hard work, and perseverance; skills of self-criticism, self-discipline, and self-improvement. Let a young person begin learning such skills, and inner dignity accrues to such a person with achievement. Dignity is based upon character constantly growing, advancing, and extending its range.

Life is a voyage, during which character is what each of us makes of our self. Character does not depend on social class, fame, or wealth. It belongs to each, in sickness and in health, in poverty or wealth; not even death parts us from it. Nobility of character is acquired, not bestowed. Apart from acquiring it, life in secular terms loses inner and outer meaning.

No one gives a person dignity from outside-in. Inner dignity can only be achieved the old-fashioned way; one (with God’s grace) earns it. The good news is that no one can take such dignity away, either. The self that has it, shall have it forever.

One of the happiest cultural shifts of the eighties is the return of the idea of character. This has not been, after all, the “me-decade.” It has been the decade of character. “Back to basics” is part of it. The return of the idea of family — evidenced in “The Cosby Show,” and “Family Ties,” for example — is another part. SAT scores are rising again. Crime and divorce have bottomed out.

Harvard’s James Q. Wilson recently wrote: “The most important change in how one defines the public interest that I have witnessed — and experienced — over the last twenty years has been a deepening concern for the development of character in the citizenry. An obvious indication of this shift has been the rise of such social issues as abortion and school prayer. A less obvious but I think more important change has been the growing awareness that a variety of public problems can only be understood — and perhaps addressed — if they are seen as arising out of a defect in character formation.”

To be sure, the beginnings are small. But in the formation of character, beginnings are always small. To do small things well — and to keep doing so — is almost to guarantee that, later, one will also do big things well.

Doing everything well is the heart of ethics. It is the soul of character. The place to begin is always here, and always now. The ethical life is a lifetime voyage (as in Pilgrim’s Progress). Whatever the adventures, the heart of the story is the character one forms for oneself.

What we had allowed to slip in America is the idea of character. That is why the return of character is such important, culture-shaking news.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.