The Core of Civic Virtue

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Liberty can no more exist without virtue . . . than the body can live and move without a soul.
—John Adams

Whenever we speak about the future of any society, we are really speaking about today’s young and their prospects. Preparing young people for bright futures is one of the core obligations of every adult community. Of course, this means providing young people with the vocational skills they will need to prosper, but vocational skills are not enough. There also exist qualities of character that determine the success or failure of a person’s life. Foremost are the virtues that make possible a life of honor and integrity.

To ensure a bright future for young people and the society they will inherit, every adult community must take seriously its responsibility to raise young people for lives of virtue. Failure to do so inevitably will result in societal decadence—literally, a “falling away,” from the Latin decadere. World history has shown us time and again what happens to a society when its citizens no longer prize virtue. Citizens have an obligation to preserve the benefits of their societies for the future as well as the present—which means an obligation to foster virtuous character in the young. Preparing young people for responsible citizenship in a free society is a crucial part of this obligation for adult citizens in the United States.

At present, we are failing to meet this obligation for major sectors of our youth population, to the detriment of their life prospects and those of liberty and democracy in our society. The problems I discuss in my new book, Failing Liberty 101—a decline in civic purpose and patriotism, a crisis of faith, a rise in cynicism, self-absorption, ignorance, and indifference to the common good—can be found among the adult population as well as among the young. But they are especially poignant when found among young people, who are in a formative time of life typically characterized by idealism, hope, and elevated ambition. As young people search for meaning in their lives, their minds are often open to all possible choices about what to believe, how to live, and what—if anything—to dedicate themselves to. When young people find nothing positive to believe in, they drift in unconstructive and sometimes destructive directions.

History has shown us time and again what happens to a society when its citizens no longer prize virtue.

In recent years, a vast amount has been written about the inferior standards of academic achievement demonstrated by too many American youth. Not only has this story been widely covered in the press, it also has made its way into the popular cinema, in widely heralded films such as Waiting for “Superman.” The serious gap in academic skills among many of our young people contributes to the problem discussed in my book, and I am pleased that this problem is now receiving public attention. But our academic skills gap pales next to the neglect of character and civic education that we have allowed to develop. Our disregard of civic and moral virtue as an educational priority is having a tangible effect on the attitudes, understanding, and behavior of large portions of the youth population in the United States today.

This is not to say that all of our young are languishing. The United States is a large and enormously diverse country. Many young Americans shine with inspiration and purpose, and are acquiring amazing degrees of skill and talent. Others may not be there yet, but are moving in a promising direction that someday will lead them to rewarding and fulfilling commitments. But too many of today’s young are floundering or worse: they have no goals that motivate them, and there are no adults in their lives who are providing them with guidance they need to find such goals. Today’s cohort of youth is a highly fragmented generation. Popular accounts of a youth generation that can be labeled with a single letter or adjective—X, Y, Z, Millennial, “the dumbest generation,” and so on—are little more than fanciful caricatures. The true story of youth today is schism: on one hand, the individuals who are on track to becoming sterling citizens; on the other, the members of their cohort who have found nothing to believe in or aspire to and who have little hope of gaining the skills or purpose they will need to succeed.

The true story of youth today is schism: on one hand, those on track to becoming sterling citizens; on the other, those who have found nothing to believe in or aspire to, and who have no skills.

Some parts of today’s youth population seem wholly oblivious to the lives and concerns of all the others. It is astonishing to note that while some young Americans are risking their lives fighting in two foreign wars, the vast majority of their peers show little interest in anything related to their sacrifices. Has this level of mutual obliviousness—across an entire generation—ever occurred before in American history? Young Americans have at times dissented from national wars, as during the Vietnam War protests, but at least those protests stood as an indication that those young people (not all of them subject to the draft) did care about the state of the nation.

We cannot expect our free society to long endure if large portions of its citizenry grow up ill-educated, oblivious to the world and current affairs, out of touch with other members of their generation, and displaying little concern for their responsibilities as American citizens—in short, if they fail to acquire any commitment to civic virtue.


My mission is to expose this very real threat to America’s future, a threat far more serious than any foreign enemy could ever pose. It is a danger close at hand, one that has not received a hundredth of the resources that we devote to combating external dangers such as terrorism. Nor has the threat been recognized by our nation’s leaders or policy makers, even though signs of it are everywhere. The most serious danger Americans now face—greater than terrorism—is that our country’s future may not end up in the hands of a citizenry capable of sustaining the liberty that has been America’s most precious legacy. If trends continue, many young Americans will grow up without an understanding of the benefits, privileges, and duties of citizens in a free society, and without acquiring the habits of character needed to live responsibly in one. As a consequence, many of today’s young will be unable to recognize the encroachments on liberty that regularly arise in the normal throes of social life, and too few will be equipped to defend their society against such encroachments.

It is not their fault. It is we—today’s grown-up generation of parents, educators, opinion leaders, and public officials—who are failing to prepare them properly for their futures as citizens in a free society. Unless we begin to pay attention and meet our challenge as stewards of a priceless heritage, our nation and the prospects of all individuals dwelling here in years to come will suffer.

My message can be summed up in four assertions:

  • A free society requires, for its very survival, a citizenry devoted in large part to moral and civic virtue.
  • When virtue loses its public footing, too few citizens accept the responsibilities necessary for sustaining liberty in that society.
  • In the United States today, we are failing to pass along essential moral and civic virtues to large segments of the youth population.
  • Unless we rectify this failure by placing a higher priority on educating young Americans for lives of moral and civic virtue, the nation will move away from liberty and toward despotism—and this movement will be both inevitable and astonishingly quick, perhaps within the space of a generation.

These are not imaginary or hyperbolic warnings. In recent times, most cultural influences on the young have become increasingly less conducive to the cultivation of civic virtue. Permissiveness, indulgence, and material inducement have replaced discipline and responsibility as the beacons of child rearing in too many contemporary homes. Major media influences on today’s young commonly emphasize the glitter of celebrity and instant success. The famous figures in the limelight are too likely to have chosen vice over virtue. News stories about substance abuse, sexual scandals, and financial chicanery among the eminent outnumber stories of service, courage, or self-sacrifice by a margin too great to measure.

The lures of a celebrity culture and the barrenness of the educational landscape have left little room for broader civic concerns.

What’s more, there is undeniable evidence of vanishing attention to civic and moral virtue among those who make U.S. education policy. At the federal level, education to promote citizenship has become wholly marginalized over the past decade; promoting character was eliminated as a Department of Education priority in 2009, when the current administration took office. Since federal funding tends to drive local education policies (particularly during hard economic times), this has translated into a severe diminishment of civic and character instruction from school curricula throughout the nation.

Many parents and teachers do not favor this shift in focus, but they are powerless to prevent it. The most recent study on the matter, released by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in September 2010, shows a striking disconnect between those who determine public educational policies and those who raise and teach the young. Funding policies now focus single-mindedly on basic math and literacy skills (with special emphasis on the remedial), squeezing out the time and resources needed to prepare students for citizenship. Yet most teachers and parents believe that citizenship, along with the essential character virtues that it requires, should occupy a central place in American education priorities, as it did in previous periods of U.S. public schooling. Unfortunately, today’s federal policies have been winning the day, at least as far as our public schools are concerned, because of the power of federal financial clout. Inattention to this shift by the news media compounds the severity of the loss.

As for the young themselves, the picture is uncomfortably mixed. A significant number of today’s youth shine with purpose and high aspirations. This is important to acknowledge because too many accounts sound as if this entire cohort is destined to go down the drain together. In our own research at Stanford, we have found at least one-fifth of twelve- to twenty-two-year-olds from varied backgrounds to be reassuringly well directed and very likely on track to becoming capable citizens. But important as that group is, it makes up a relatively small part of the youth population as a whole. For the remaining segments, finding purpose in life is still an elusive aim, and a devotion to moral and civic goals lies at the bottom of a long list of personal concerns, if it exists at all. For many young people today, the lures of a celebrity culture and the barrenness of their educational landscape have left little room for broader civic concerns. A distressingly large number of today’s young have found nothing to strive for beyond a day-to-day pursuit of comfort and pleasure.


In a study of American civic virtues, gratitude must be front and center. How can a people blessed with the privileges of American citizenship not feel grateful for the unique rights and opportunities embodied in the American tradition? Or for the sacrifices, efforts, and genius of those who forged that tradition of liberty and democracy?

Yet a mood of disaffection—and, in some quarters, strident complaint—is sweeping the country. Gratitude for America’s blessings is in short supply. There is no way to know how long this sour mood will last; public opinion in an open democracy can turn around quickly. But for young people raised in the present sociopolitical climate, it is especially hard to find things to believe in or civic leaders to admire. And young people need inspiration if they are to become motivated to contribute to the public good.

Isn’t it the case, many will argue, that the United States has made grave errors, that the nation’s actions nowadays seldom live up to the noble ideals proclaimed in its founding, and that this is what young people should be taught for the sake of critical thinking? Perhaps such statements have some truth to them, but they are far from the whole truth. Critical thinking is worthless unless built upon a base of concern and caring. To criticize something to improve it is entirely different from criticizing it to detach from it. Young people growing up in the United States need an appreciation for the American tradition to ensure that their critical perspectives on the country will be constructive rather than nihilistic. Any balanced view of American history will conclude that this sense of appreciation is well warranted.

Certainly many shortcomings in the American past have merited complaint, especially for people and groups who have suffered discrimination and exclusion. But there is a long story of successive liberation and eventual progress in American social life, even if at times too slowly realized. Nor is our story of successive liberation and progress accidental—quite the opposite. The nation was founded with the explicit intention of creating a government that would allow for such progress through reflection and conscious choice. The founders realized that this would be an uncertain path, at times difficult to forge and always beset by formidable obstacles. Indeed, the founders predicted that the United States would be a unique and decisive experiment in the ability of humans to enjoy political liberty. The Federalist Papers began with this stirring observation:

(I)t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force . . . and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

Conceived in this way, as an experiment in good government, individual choice, liberty, and human dignity, the United States occupies a special place in the pantheon of human moral endeavor. However imperfectly, the American tradition has remained true to the intention of the founders, providing a long string of affirmative answers to their original experimental question.

The essential civic manifestation of gratitude and affection for one’s country is patriotism—the commitment to society that grows out of a spirit of love and appreciation for the benefits that society has bestowed. The founders recognized that love of country and patriotism were inextricably linked to the virtues required to sustain a free society. Thomas Jefferson, for example, copied the following quote from Montesquieu in his Commonplace Book:

In a republic . . . virtue may be defined as the love of the laws and of our country. As such love requires a constant preference of public to private interest, it is the source of all private virtue. . . . Now a government is like everything else: to preserve it we must love it. Everything, therefore, depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education, but the surest way of instilling it into children is for parents to set them an example.

In our time (as in other contentious times and places), patriotism has become a contested word. One side of today’s political spectrum looks upon it with suspicion and distrust, echoing Samuel Johnson’s witticism that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Too many on the other side claim patriotism as their side’s sole property, using it as a political wedge issue and limiting it to token gestures such as waving flags and wearing lapel pins. This is unhealthy for civic cohesion. Debates can and should rage about the most sensible and admirable versions of patriotism, but its value as a necessary civic virtue should not be doubted. Without a patriotic attachment to one’s society, the kinds of full devotion that spur citizens to make crucial sacrifices for the public good could never exist. There are times when every society needs this full devotion for its very survival.

Patriotism, of course, is a particular attachment to one’s own society. Some influential educators have objected to fostering patriotism in students because they fear that particular attachments lead inevitably to conflict with those who harbor competing attachments. In the place of patriotism, they would promote “world citizenship” or “cosmopolitanism.” In a time of rapid globalization, this argument has found considerable favor among both intellectuals and the business community—the former wishing to avoid global conflict, the latter wishing to facilitate international commerce.

It is true that particularistic devotions can be exclusionary, discriminatory, and predatory, all of which can create serious moral problems. Moreover, provincialism can be bad for commerce. But patriotism does not need to take a chauvinistic or insular form. It can go hand in hand with a concern for the welfare of people everywhere, with a respect for universal human rights and a belief in universal justice. Indeed, that is exactly in the spirit of the American Constitution. The founders were convinced that the success of their “experiment” would promote human dignity and freedom everywhere—and that its failure would be a misfortune to all mankind.

Unfortunately, global citizenship is an empty concept. It contains none of the essential meanings that students need to learn for their own futures as citizens in an actual society: the privileges and rights granted to citizens of a particular country, or the duties and obligations to which they are expected to commit themselves. Our students will not be able to vote for a public official of the world; they will not petition to a world court to address a grievance; no global government will protect their property or their rights; they will not pay taxes to the world; they will not be inducted to serve in a world jury or a world army.

Citizenship is particularistic. A student can learn how to be a good American citizen only by learning the particular rights and obligations that United States citizenship entails. Students can understand the meaning of these rights and obligations only by learning about the American constitutional tradition as it has evolved since the nation’s founding. For American students, patriotism is a particular attachment to this tradition. Based on gratitude and an informed appreciation of the tradition, patriotism gives emotional support to citizenship and serves as the primary source of civic purpose.

Without question, our students need to absorb as much as possible about the world beyond our borders. They should learn about the world’s diverse cultures and master foreign languages. They very likely will participate in the global economy. As a moral matter, American students should develop an understanding of the perspectives of people around the world so that they can respond to others’ needs and problems in a humane way. But the present-day emphasis on world citizenship and cosmopolitanism in our schools obscures rather than clarifies what it really means to be a responsible citizen. And it works against the very concerns that animate those who promulgate it, such as the fear that patriotism fosters quarrels and injustice.

Patriotism, far from being “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” is indispensable.

Patriotism is not the only essential concept to draw controversy among educators in recent years. There have been parallels in the handling of indispensable notions such as morality and truth. In the latter part of the twentieth century, moral relativism (the belief that there are no universal moral values) became so fashionable that many educators avoided using the term “moral” in their classrooms, believing that it should be left to fundamentalist groups such as the Moral Majority. At the same time, a smaller (and less influential) contingent was denying the existence of truth on the grounds that perceived reality is inevitably shaped by distorted perspectives, especially perspectives that reflect the self-interests of a “ruling class” with the power to determine what is presented in cultural settings such as public schools.

Again, as in the case of patriotism, such conclusions are misguided. Arguments about what is morally right and what is true are educative for students; but arguments that there is no such thing as morality, or that truth is an illusion, make little sense, and they can discourage a student’s motivation to learn how best to pursue the good and the true. It is time for patriotism, the motivational basis for informed and devoted citizenship, to join morality and truth as the highly valued objectives of education in American schools.


Liberty in a society makes possible a range of important personal freedoms, including religious, economic, ideological, family, and lifestyle freedoms. But liberty and freedom are not strictly synonymous, because there are some unrestrained freedoms (for example, from individual responsibility, from obligations and duties, and licentiousness) that erode liberty by damaging the social framework needed to protect it. It is important to cultivate virtue in young people for the very reason that virtue alone can provide the self-imposed restraints that can enable them to live responsibly under conditions of political liberty.

For centuries, political philosophers have written about the nature of liberty. As in any scholarly field, debates and distinct ideological positions have been staked out. I am a consumer rather than a maker of political philosophy, and I use a somewhat eclectic mix of these positions. Some thinkers refer to “negative” liberty and “positive” liberty: the former denoting the absence of social interference with private actions, the latter the capacity to influence the governance of one’s society. There have been fascinating debates about whether these two kinds of liberty are compatible, which is primary, and so on.

As interesting as these debates are, they are not my focus. I assume that for full citizenship, young people must be prepared for both kinds of political liberty: they must learn to live in a free society and to participate in its governance. The question is how to prepare them so that they and the generations after them will continue to enjoy access to all the freedoms that political liberty makes possible.