Fostering Virtue

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Rickshaw.JPGBy Kentaro Toyama

As much as I liked Narasimha, my favorite mode of travel within India was the auto-rickshaw. The word "rickshaw" comes from "jin riki sha" (人力車), which means "human-powered vehicle" in Japanese. The word probably went to China and got picked up by the British, who then applied it to Indian rickshaws. Auto-rickshaws are thus the etymological equivalent of automobiles.

Physically, though, they're a different beast. Auto-rickshaws are three-wheeled, covered, scooter-taxis that zip around in cities throughout India.  Elsewhere, they're called "tuk-tuks," "trishaws," or "mototaxis." They're small, light, nimble, and convenient, but it wouldn't be inaccurate to call them mini-deathtraps. 

Every so often, I got an outgoing driver who'd engage me in conversation, one who spoke a little English, and who'd also talk about this and that. I remember one particular conversation because of how it ended. The driver told me that he had a family living outside of town that he saw once a week. He had two daughters, aged three and six, and the older one was just starting school. He was proud that he could send her to a private school, where school fees were a couple of dollars per month. Based on what I had heard from other drivers, he probably earned around $2 per day. He said he would sleep in his rickshaw after my fare (it was past midnight) and then get up at 5 a.m. to catch the early commuters.  Right before arriving at my destination -- which at the time happened to be a high-end hotel -- he asked me, "What is the secret of your success?  Please tell me, sir, I want to know." 

Of course, what he was really asking was, "What can I do, that presumably you are doing, that would allow me to live the better life you appear to have?" The honest reply would have been, "Have been born in a wealthy country to good parents who will see that you get a good education," but of course, that would have been of little help. A more practical answer is something that I continue to struggle with.

The answer was certainly not more virtue, at least for him. It wouldn't have changed his life much, and definitely not without other kinds of support. But for his children or those of us who might support them, more virtue still has value. So, for what it's worth, here are a few speculative ideas for how to foster virtue.

Education

Everyone believes in education, but we could pay it still more attention and think beyond academic K-12 programs. Though the obvious value of an effective education is in the skills and knowledge gained, there are subtler, but possibly more meaningful, impacts on individual and societal virtues.

I'll highlight just one area that is often overlooked: early childhood development. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has taken up an ambitious program to model how age-dependent investments in parenting and education relate to adult economic productivity. He and his colleagues incorporate recent findings in psychology and neuroscience, in addition to economics. Heckman notes the importance of both cognitive traits, such as intelligence, and non-cognitive traits, which read like a list of virtues: "perseverance, motivation, self-esteem, self-control, conscientiousness, and forward-looking behavior." Both sets of traits are malleable and generally easier to influence when a person is younger. In addition, the value of the traits snowball over time; a little extra self-control in first grade can mean greater vocabulary in the second grade, which might mean a lot more books read in the third grade, and so on. Thus, earlier interventions have greater benefits than later ones.

Heckman concludes that interventions in early childhood, such as enriched preschool centers and home visitation programs, are the most cost-effective way to address societal inequalities while increasing overall economic output.

There are non-economic outcomes that matter, too, of course, and I speculate that Heckman's interventions help with those, as well.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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