Although today's Princeton and today's parents impose all sorts of rules to reduce safety risks and encourage achievement, they do not go to great lengths to build character, the way adults and adult institutions did a century ago. They don't offer much help with the fundamental questions. "We've taken the decision that these are adults and this is not our job," Jeffrey Herbst says. "There's a pretty self-conscious attempt not to instill character." Herbst does add that students are expected to live up to the standards that apply to academic life—no plagiarism, no cheating. But in general the job of the university is to supply the knowledge that students will need to prosper, and, at most, to provide a forum in which they can cultivate character on their own. "This university doesn't orchestrate students' lives outside the classroom," says Princeton's dean of undergraduate students, Kathleen Deignan. "We're very conservative about how we steer. They steer themselves." As the admissions officer Fred Hargadon puts it, "I don't know if we build character or remind them that they should be developing it."
From the archives:"When Evil Is Cool"
Our culture, in particular the institution of the university, has contrived over the past few decades to transform sin into a positive: transgression, a term that, as used by postmodern critics, refers to an implied form of greatness. By Roger Shattuck In America today we don't tell our children they are half brutes. It's impossible to imagine a modern university president mentioning the devil or the beast in a commencement address. People don't even talk much about evil anymore, except as something that might happen far away, in Serbia or in Nazi Germany. Around us we see not evil but sickness that requires therapy. Today we speak the language of positive reinforcement.
In talking to Princeton students about character, I noticed two things. First, they're a little nervous about the subject. When I asked if Princeton builds character, they would inevitably mention the honor code against cheating, or policies to reduce drinking. When I asked about moral questions, they would often flee such talk and start discussing legislative questions. For example, at dinner one evening a young man proposed that if we could just purge the wrongs that people do to one another over the next few generations, the human race could live in perfect harmony ever after, without much need for government or laws or prisons. I asked the other eight or nine students at the table to reflect on this, but they quickly veered off toward how long it would take to bring about this perfect world. I asked specifically if human beings were perfectible in this way. Some grunted in vague assent, and one young woman—a conservative Christian who had interned for Jesse Helms the previous summer—said that she agreed with what the young man had said. Apparently the doctrine of original sin had not left much of a mark on her.
Today's students are indeed interested in religion and good works. "In the past ten or twelve years students are no longer embarrassed about being interested in religion—or spirituality, as they call it," says Robert Wuthnow, the Princeton sociologist. "That's a huge change. People used to feel as if they had acne being raised in a religious home." I hadn't been on campus more than five minutes before I started hearing about all the students who do community service—tutoring at a charter school in Trenton, working at Habitat for Humanity-style building projects, serving food at soup kitchens. But religion tends to be more private than public with them, and the character of their faith tends to be unrelievedly upbeat. "It's an optimistic view," Wuthnow says. "You just never hear about sin and evil and judgment. It's about love and success and being happy."
When it comes to character and virtue, these young people have been left on their own. Today's go-getter parents and today's educational institutions work frantically to cultivate neural synapses, to foster good study skills, to promote musical talents. We fly our children around the world so that they can experience different cultures. We spend huge amounts of money on safety equipment and sports coaching. We sermonize about the evils of drunk driving. We expend enormous energy guiding and regulating their lives. But when it comes to character and virtue, the most mysterious area of all, suddenly the laissez-faire ethic rules: You're on your own, Jack and Jill; go figure out what is true and just for yourselves.
We assume that each person has to solve these questions alone (though few other societies in history have made this assumption). We assume that if adults try to offer moral instruction, it will just backfire, because our children will reject our sermonizing (though they don't seem to reject any other part of our guidance and instruction). We assume that such questions have no correct answer that can be taught. Or maybe the simple truth is that adult institutions no longer try to talk about character and virtue because they simply wouldn't know what to say. John Hibben could fill books with moral instruction, but our connections to that tradition have been snapped.
One sometimes has the sense that all the frantic efforts to regulate safety, to encourage academic achievement, and to keep busy are ways to compensate for missing conceptions of character and virtue. Not having a vocabulary to discuss what is good and true, people can at least behave well. It's hard to know what eternal life means, but if you don't smoke you can have long life. It's hard to imagine what it would be like to be a saint, but it's easy to see what it is to be a success.
The compensation works, to an extent. These young people are wonderful to be around. If they are indeed running the country in a few decades, we'll be in fine shape. It will be a good country, though maybe not a great one. The Princeton of today is infinitely more pleasant than the old Princeton, infinitely more just, and certainly more intellectual and curious. But still there is a sense that something is missing. Somehow, in the world of moral combat that John Hibben described, the stakes were higher, the consequences of one's decisions were more serious, the goals were nobler. In this world hardworking students achieve self-control; in that one virtuous students achieved self-mastery.
I had lunch one day with Robert George, a professor in Princeton's politics department. Like a lot of elite colleges, Princeton has one or two faculty members who are known as the campus conservatives. They may be liked personally, and admired for their teaching and research skills, but they are regarded as a bit odd, and dismissible. I don't, however, see anything specifically conservative in the message George offered that day (which I'm condensing from a thirty-minute portion of our conversation). "We would do our best if we could make sure our students had a dose of the Augustinian sense that there is a tragic dimension to life," he said. "That there is a sense in which we live in a vale of tears. We could make them aware of the reality of sin, by which I mean chosen evil, which cannot be cured by therapy or by science. We don't do enough to call into question the therapeutic model of evil: 'He has a problem ... He's sick.'
"I don't mean we should have a separate course on character. We don't need to give them specific answers. We could raise this awareness—through readings and discussions in history and philosophy and literature, by reading Plato's Gorgias, Othello, or a study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates—that the conquest of the self is part of what it means to lead a successful life. It's not enough to make a corporation succeed. It's not an external problem. It doesn't lend itself to a technical solution. Four hours spent studying in the library is not self-mastery."
George described a moment when he and a colleague were urging their students not to commit plagiarism. The honor code goes against it, George told them; the Internet makes it easier to plagiarize, but also much easier for faculty members to catch plagiarists. Besides, he concluded, God will see you doing evil. Suddenly there was an awkward shifting of chairs and a demurral from his faculty colleague. The idea that it is possible to do wrong sitting alone in your room, even if you don't cause another person any harm, is hard, George said, for modern Americans to comprehend fully. The problem is that this idea is at the heart of understanding what it means to be virtuous.
George suggested that I talk to a student he had in a few of his classes, a sophomore, who came to campus with the tragic sense that George would like to impart. This young man took me to lunch in his college dining room, and when I asked him about character-building, he spoke more comfortably and thoughtfully than anybody else I had met. He wasn't easy on himself, the way supercharged achievers have a tendency to be. "Egotism is the biggest challenge here," he said. "It can make you proud if you do well. It can make you self-assured and self-sufficient. You don't need help from other people. You won't need help from your wife. You won't give yourself over to her when you are married." He went on, talking calmly but faster than I could write. He was talking in a language different from that of the meritocrat—about what one is, rather than what one does. He really did stand out from the other students, who were equally smart and equally accomplished but who hadn't been raised with a vocabulary of virtue and vice.
Somebody once wrote a book called Harvard Hates America, about the supposedly alien Ivy League snobs who look down on the rest of the country. I don't get that sense when I visit Harvard, and I certainly didn't get that sense at Princeton. Princeton doesn't hate America. It reflects America. And in most ways it reflects the best of America. After all, as people kept reminding me, these are some of the best and brightest young people our high schools have to offer. They have woven their way through the temptations of adolescence and have benefited from all the nurturing and instruction and opportunities with which the country has provided them. They are responsible. They are generous. They are bright. They are good-natured. But they live in a country that has lost, in its frenetic seeking after happiness and success, the language of sin and character-building through combat with sin. Evil is seen as something that can be cured with better education, or therapy, or Prozac. Instead of virtue we talk about accomplishment.
Maybe the lives of the meritocrats are so crammed because the stakes are so small. All this ambition and aspiration is looking for new tests to ace, new clubs to be president of, new services to perform, but finding that none of these challenges is the ultimate challenge, and none of the rewards is the ultimate reward.