The display of cooperation and warmth that neighbors and strangers showed each other in areas hard-hit by Hurricane Harvey was a welcome relief from what has become a coarsening of  American society.

Initiatives to teach “character education” to students and “community service” requirements have been instituted in an attempt to raise young people with an understanding of civic and civil life, but those have failed to change things in any meaningful way, and the authors of this post explain why and what can be done about it.

The authors are Richard Weissbourd,  a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the faculty director of the “Making Caring Common” project, and Howard Gardner, the renowned professor and psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education known for his “theory of multiple intelligences.”

By Richard Weissbourd and Howard Gardner

These days basic decency, civility and compassion are imperiled in American life. Whether it’s divisive, finger-pointing politicians, the daily “shout” shows, everyday social-media hostility, spikes in hate crimes or emboldened white supremacists, our public and communal life is embarrassingly, indeed dangerously debased.

We shouldn’t be surprised. For decades, we have neglected to do something fundamental for any healthy society — raise children who prioritize leading an ethical life, including caring for others and for the common good. In fact, the degree to which we have elevated personal success in child-raising over caring for others may be at an all-time high.

We are obsessed with our children doing well, not doing good. And unless we come to our senses, we will dangerously fray or break the threads that tenuously hold us together.

How did we get here? And how do we get to a better place?

The current narrow focus on success has not been the norm. In fact, throughout most of our history, the primary charge for parents (and grandparents) was to raise good community members and responsible citizens. Similarly, until the last century, the chief mission of most schools and colleges in this country has not been promoting academic achievement but forming individuals who are respectful, responsible citizens. And certainly good character has been key in religious education.

Much has changed in recent decades. Participation in religious institutions has steadily diminished. Most parents appear to be more focused on their children getting ahead than on their concern for others. Over the last five years, Making Caring Common, a project directed by Weissbourd, has surveyed over 40,000 diverse middle and high school students across the country.

These young people have been far more likely to prioritize aspects of personal success — happiness and achievement — than caring for others, and they’ve been far more likely to view their parents as prioritizing happiness and achievement over caring for others. Youth were three times more likely to agree than disagree, for example, with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I am a caring community member in class and school.”

Under intense pressure to improve academic performance, most schools these days typically marginalize the teaching of ethical values such as honesty, a sense of fairness, and concern for the public good. Most universities, including our own, have ceased to stand for or teach these values.

Nowadays, when educators talk about character, they valorize those traits that allow individuals to achieve at higher levels — qualities like perseverance, planning, grit, impulse control, resilience — what’s called “performance character.” While important, this focus omits entirely those qualities which propel us to care for those who are vulnerable, to be honest and fair, and to sacrifice for families, communities, workplaces, and societies — what’s known as “ethical character.”

We now quite clearly put “me” over “we.”

The laser-like focus on self-advancement has become so widespread in many communities that it has undermined important ethical norms that safeguard our individual and collective well-being.

In studies of “Good Work” carried out by Gardner and his colleagues, young people, bent on getting ahead, have admitted that they are willing to cut corners and to cheat to achieve personal success because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that their peers are not ethical. They view being ethical as something they can postpone until after they’ve achieved success. Recalling the words of St. Augustine, they declare, in effect, “Oh Lord, make me chaste…but not yet.”

What to do?

Without question, young people are most likely to develop ethical capacities like respect and fairness if these qualities live and breathe in their key relationships day to day. Schools, sports programs, and other community programs should foster ethical norms based on respect and fairness for all persons while expecting youth to invest in others and giving them regular chances to practice caring for others and their communities.

Powerful learning can occur when young people are also asked to reflect on the nature of fairness, understand the reasons for service, and witness and experience appropriate consequences when norms are violated. Needless to say, the behavior of nearby peers and adults is crucial: young people notice who does, and who does not, “walk the talk” — be it a peer, a principal, or a P\president.  There are several programs that can guide schools in creating these norms and practices and in “walking the talk.” (See here and here and here.)

But perhaps more important is a fundamental change in the messages that young people receive from key adults and powerful institutions about what composes a valuable life.

We have been engaged in an effort to reform the college admissions process so that it sends a powerfully different message: that what’s important in college admissions is not long lists of accomplishments but meaningful intellectual and ethical engagement — especially concern for others and the common good. Over 160 college admissions deans have endorsed this effort. In similar fashion employers, both individually and collectively, could send far stronger messages that ethical character is important in hiring because it is vital to a healthy workplace and often enhances productivity, a message supported by a good deal of recent research.

Parents, as a start, rather than telling their children that “the most important thing is that you do well in school and are happy,” might say, “the most important thing is that you’re caring and fair.”

None of this, of course, will be easily achieved. But it is worth tremendous effort. The divided, contentious state of community in much of our country and throughout the world requires that we demand much of ourselves and young people. And the time may be right.

Many people across the political spectrum appear to be startled by the collapse of civility in our public life. There is perhaps space for a new kind of “moral majority,” one that is founded on basic notions of respect and decency. Crises can harbor opportunities. We need to strategically and courageously seize them.