Last weekend, the Pepperdine School of Public Policy in Malibu hosted a conference honoring the life and legacy of James Q. Wilson (1931-2012), whom Peter H. Schuck described as “unquestionably the pre-eminent political scientist of the last 50 years” in the New York Times. The conference focused on his 1993 book The Moral Sense, in which Wilson sought to bring character formation back to the social science and public policy table. His 1985 essay “The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy,” is very much in the same vein:
At root, in almost every area of important public concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers, or voters and public officials. Not only is such conduct desirable in its own right, it appears now to be necessary if large improvements are to be made in those matters we consider problems: schooling, welfare, crime, and public finance. . .
For most social problems that deeply trouble us, the need is to explore, carefully and experimentally, ways of strengthening the formation of character among the very young. In the long run, the public interest depends on private virtue.
As Wilson notes in the essay and conference participants admitted, strategies for molding and nourishing a virtuous citizenry are tough to nail down. As with many problems of public and private concern, recognizing the problem and accepting the challenge is the essential first step.
To download the full essay, which originally ran in The Public Interest, click here.
Wilson also wrote specifically about Citizen Participation in three different essays, citations for which are available here. One of these, “Bowling with Others,” is available online at Commentary.
Contributor: Benjamin Peterson, Pepperdine School of Public Policy, MPP Candidate ’15.