THE BLOG
08/14/2013 07:04 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

Insights From Storytelling: Public Service as a Moral Calling

This post was co-authored by Thomas Ehrlich, professor of education at Stanford University.

Why do so many faculty in higher education distain stories? Theory is too often privileged over studying how real people grapple with living. Tom Ehrlich has been in higher education, as a teacher and administrator, for most of the past half-century. Ernestine Fu until recently has been an undergraduate and is now a graduate student. But neither of us has figured out the answer.

The Power of Stories

The work of Robert Coles, a giant in the study of moral character, is an example Tom knows well, for Coles was a mentor to him. Coles has written more than eighty books, yet has never been recognized as a great scholar by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, where he teaches, because he draws his lessons from the stories of those he studies. His books, particularly The Call of Stories (1989) and The Call of Service (1993), are lasting evidence that stories are a powerful way to engage people of all ages in learning to live a moral life.

As another example, Habits of the Heart (1985) is a seminal work by Robert Bellah and his coauthors. They took their title from a phrase of Alexis de Tocqueville, who described the shaping forces of American identity as participation in local politics, family life, and religious traditions. The authors sought to understand, in their words, "how to preserve or create a morally coherent life." They portray an America where individualism has become a dominant force, one that that "may have grown cancerous," destroying the social bonds of community. Like de Tocqueville, the authors viewed those bonds as essential to the well-being of America's citizenry. They make a powerful case for the importance of collective support of the vulnerable in our society.

Bellah and his co-authors (including one of Tom's colleagues, William M. Sullivan) tell their insights about the American scene through stories of those whom they interviewed over five years of research. Those stories reflect various aspects of American life, and civic participation was a key dimension for them, including both traditional forms of politics and voluntary associations and forms of political activism that emerged in the 1960s.

Bellah and Coles were hardly the first, of course, to reveal the power of stories. Those who wrote the great stories in the Bible, as well as Aesop and other Greek and Roman tellers of tales, were doing just that in earlier millennia.

Robert Bellah: A Moral Exemplar and Storyteller

The death of Robert Bellah a few days ago, on July 30, 2013, brought our initial question sadly to mind. Bellah himself was not only a superb chronicler of American moral character, but also a moral exemplar. A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, he had been a member of the Communist Party as an undergraduate in the late 1940s. As reported in his obituary in The New York Times, when he was writing his doctoral dissertation at Harvard, Dean McGeorge Bundy, later National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, called on Bellah "to reveal the names of fellow Communists or risk losing his graduate fellowship." In an act of great moral courage, Bellah refused to talk about any Communist activities except his own and he lost his fellowship.

Bellah was a giant in both sociology and philosophy, and finished a synoptic work on the world's religions just before his death, Religion in Human Evolution. He taught for decades at University of California, Berkeley. But, again as reported in his obituary, when he was named to a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, many of the Institute's other faculty - mainly scientists and mathematicians - "questioned his scholarly credentials." They deemed his work "insufficiently rigorous" because it focused on stories over theory. In the wake of those protests, Bellah decided to remain at Berkeley.

Civic Work as a Moral Calling

Our aim is to encourage people of all ages, and particularly young people, to engage in public service, or what we term civic work. Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service, a new book we have written, is filled with stories to illustrate seven key lessons. We stress the importance of being part of something larger than oneself, and the central role that civic work can have in the shaping of moral character. We close our book by writing that, "Over time and with practice, we know that civic work can become for young people an essential part of their identity, of who they are and how they relate to the world around them and to those in need. This shaping of character is the journey of a lifetime, one that never ends."

Today, unlike the time when Habits of the Heart was written, there has been an explosion of involvement by young Americans in non-profit organizations that promote social good in countless ways to meet basic human needs such as health, education, food, and shelter. Ernestine tells inspiring stories of some of the many youth whom we interviewed, stories that illustrate the challenges of civic work, and the lessons that we think are essential to doing that work successfully. Tom illustrates those lessons as well, drawing on stories from his experiences in government service. While we both applaud the growing civic engagement of youth in non-profit civic work, we also are deeply concerned that public policy and politics are ignored by most young people, a dangerous reality for our democracy.

As we reflect on the insights we gained from stories, we realize how much Coles and Bellah helped chart our path in approaching public service as a moral calling.