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  • In talks about poverty and mobility, mentioning character is often a conversation stopper. But it doesn't have to be. Tweet This
  • A new essay collection outlines an emerging consensus about character and opportunity. Tweet This

At the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown, the Reverend Melanie DeBouse, pastor of Evangel Chapel in Philadelphia, ended her portion of a panel discussion with a statement on the importance of teaching young people in poverty to hope and to dream.  “I was born in a poor situation, but I wasn’t born in poverty,” she said. She contrasted the hopelessness and lack of future-thinking that some see as characteristic of poverty with a different mindset, something more akin to what think tank Third Way calls “the mobility mindset.”

In a recent conversation, I was reminded of Pastor Melanie’s words when someone asked a question about whether certain noneconomic traits, like hope, could be important to cultivate in order to help people overcome poverty. Another person responded by saying that she doesn’t like to focus on those kinds of traits because it can come across as blaming the poor. No one else dared say anything, and the conversation quickly changed to economic factors related to poverty.

But in a new book of essays published by the Brookings Institution, sixteen respondents take up a variation of that dismissed question: “When it comes to social mobility, does character matter?”  It’s a question I’ve been asking, too, particularly when thinking about the young adults in the working-class Ohio town where I live.

In his introduction to the book Richard Reeves describes each essay as “an intellectual pemmican: short and to the point.”  The average Kindle reader finishes the book in a little over an hour. Far from dry and long-winded, the compiled essays make for a succinct and satisfying read.

Covering a range of focuses—how chronic stress in young children affects character development, the importance of empathy, responsible parenting, gendered character, the political implications, and more—the essayists expressed more agreement than I anticipated. And though discussion of character can be surprisingly controversial, I noticed five areas of common ground in many of these essays—ideas which could be the basis for emerging consensus in today’s public conversation on character and opportunity.

1. Human success is more than test scores.

As James Heckman writes in his essay, “Too much emphasis continues to be placed on one side of the human capital coin—namely cognitive skills, variously equated with IQ and scores on achievement tests—to the detriment of character skills.” And Dominic A.A. Randolph agrees that “extreme focus on IQ” leads to a “misunderstanding of human success and potential.” A focus on character, he says, can help us to “broaden our approaches to conceptualizing and measuring human endeavor in all its richness.”

2. Character is not something fixed or innate, but developed.

In “Character Is Experience,” Joseph Fishkin shares a metaphor for the way that our self and our environment interact to form character. “We are sedimentary creatures,” he writes. “Our abilities and disabilities, our preferences and values, and our character traits all arise through layer upon layer of dynamic interaction between self and environment that build us, gradually over time, into the people we are.” He cautions us to “avoid making the same mistakes in the study of character that we are only beginning to recover from in the study of ability,” namely the idea that “if something about a person’s mind shows up in a scientific test, it is probably inborn.” To the contrary, Fishkin points out that we would never measure the muscles of an athlete and conclude that he was born with those muscles. We instead observe that they are “the result of a lifetime of training and experience.” Fishkin concludes that “The brain is no different.” And by implication, neither is character: it too can be developed.

This message comes through, as well, in Ross A. Thompson’s fascinating essay on how chronic adversity, like poverty or parents’ marital conflict, affects young children. Children living in these stressful conditions suffer the “downstream effects of stress hormones on other developing brain systems,” and are more likely to have self-regulatory problems like greater impulsivity, diminished focus, poorer emotional self-control, and a loss of future-time perspective. Yet Thompson’s conclusion is not deterministic: “Rather, it is that long before character education begins, there are inherent capacities shaped by early experience that make the development of these attributes easier or more difficult.”

3. A discussion of character does not have to imply individual culpability.

We don’t see the achievement gap as a reflection on the intelligence of the poor, but as a social failing. Similarly, we do not need to see the character gap as only the fault of individual poor people because character is not formed in a vacuum.  Stuart Butler makes the point that culture is critical in character development, but that sometimes “critics hear [discussion of virtue] as a moral judgment about poor people.” That’s why he opts for the term “culture,” which connotes “a web of influences in a neighborhood.” This web includes things like friends and peers, associations and institutions, and norms, something that Isabel Sawhill also discusses.

4. We should focus on the “complementary domains” of performance character and moral character.

Marvin Berkowitz notes the “upsurge in interest in a side of character that has to do with excellence rather than goodness” and worries that emphasizing performance character (traits like diligence, self-control, perseverance) to the exclusion of the moral character is a potentially “treacherous.” He invokes Teddy Roosevelt’s quote: “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society” and concludes that addressing the mobility crisis with “a feral competition where those with the strongest performance character are most upwardly mobile” would not be much of a solution. “Rather, the goal should be a world in which the moral character of citizens drives societal progress to a more just and compassionate world.” Amitai Etzioni makes a similar point but with different language when he writes that two capabilities are needed in character education: self-discipline and empathy. “[Empathy] significantly augments [self-discipline]. If students only acquired high levels of self-discipline, they might use their ability to dedicate themselves to projects that might harm others.”

5. Character matters, but so do other things.

No one is saying that character is the only relevant factor for mobility. Brent Roberts calls this the “diversified portfolio model of human flourishing.” He explains, “If one examines the contribution of any one predictor favored by different groups, such as poverty, cognitive ability, or character, to outcomes that people care about—love, work, and health, for example, the picture becomes quite clear. No one factor explains everything.” Therefore, character can’t be our only poverty-fighting measure; it is one among many.

This is not to gloss over important differences and cautionary notes voiced by some of the essayists, which I will explore further in my next post. It is also not to make light of the political challenges that Lanae Erickson Hatalsky brings up in her essay, “The Thorny Politics of Mobility.”

Yet given the many areas of agreement, I wonder if it’s possible that these “thorny politics” might become less thorny in the near future—a future in which bringing up character in a conversation about mobility is no longer an automatic conversation-stopper. If this pithy collection of essays is any indicator, the conversation about character is just getting started.