Creating Moral Ecologies for Benevolence

Albert ChengThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

As I write this, the middle schoolers at my local church are about to embark on a week-long gauntlet chock-full of opportunities to serve our city. You can check out some of the organizations that they will be partnering with here, here, and here.

My church professes the mantra “In the city, for the city,” and we hope that our middle schoolers will embody this ideal not only in the upcoming week but beyond. Such civic aspirations raise the question how to form people like the late President George H.W. Bush, a man eulogized as “a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.”

Schools–Christian or not–wrestle with this challenge. They have long aimed to cultivate civic virtue. The task is important, especially in a cultural moment marked by declining rates of volunteerism, growing social isolation, a civic discourse increasingly marked by incivility, and an elevation of the atomistic individual.

Civic education is typically approached as a task of transmitting information and developing technical skills. Explain laws and how government is organized. Give students the practical know-how for participating in a procedural republic, like voting, protesting, or contacting their representatives.

These are necessary but hardly enough. Proper civic education engages more than the head and hands: the heart is important too. It entails nurturing the right dispositions towards others.

Nor is it enough to know concepts like justice, unselfishness, or compassion in the abstract. Students need habits that form them to be just, unselfish, and compassionate. Love in deed and truth, not just word and speech, John the Apostle exhorts. Children and young adults also need these habits to form affections towards people and entrench commitment to their communities. Formation of the heart–or the chest, as C.S. Lewis put it in The Abolition of Man–requires anchoring students in moral communities that value these ends and embody them.

I allude to these points in a recently published study in Youth and Society that I conducted with University of Notre Dame professor and fellow Cardus Senior Fellow David Sikkink. We followed a nationally representative sample of over 15,000 fifteen-year-olds in public and private schools until they were in their twenties to examine the kinds of community service activities they undertook.

We hypothesized that students’ later engagement with volunteerism depended on the values that their schools espoused, the ways members of the school community practiced benevolence, and the organizational ties to other civic institutions that their schools shared — that is, their school’s moral ecosystem. Indeed, these points were supported in our data.

For instance, evangelical Christian schools’ emphasis on justice, generosity, and neighborly love together with their links to local congregations and charities not only sustained their students’ inclinations to volunteer in young adulthood but also to do so through their churches and affiliated ministries.

Catholic schools emphasize similar values but are more closely tied to other institutions such as hospitals and Catholic Worker houses. It comes as no surprise that this moral ecosystem steers Catholic school graduates to volunteer in health care organizations, community centers, or neighborhood associations.

Even secular schools are not morally neutral. They value particular civic ends such as political participation or caring for the environment and are tied to like-minded local organizations. As it turns out, graduates of traditional public schools or secular private schools tend to volunteer in political organizations or environmental groups; they are much less likely to volunteer through faith-based organizations.

Teachers, heads of schools, and other leaders of evangelical Christian schools will perhaps be encouraged to hear that Dr. Sikkink and I found that their graduates were most likely to volunteer during young adulthood, as the figure shows. At age 19, about half of the graduates from evangelical Christian schools reported participating in some service activity. Six years after that, the rate slightly decreased to 46 percent. Meanwhile, 40 percent of graduates of Catholic, secular private, and traditional public schools reported volunteering across both time periods.

Figure. Overall volunteerism rates by school sector over time.


Although the news may be favorable, there is plenty of room for reflection and improvement. Are Christian school educators content knowing that only half of their graduates participate in community service? How can schools better steward and sustain a moral ecosystem that promotes benevolent virtues?

And what should be made of most volunteering occurring through religious groups and local churches? While it is important to seek the wellbeing of members of the congregation, it is equally important to extend Christ’s welcome to non-members. Even as religious civic institutions provide a locus for service, is there room to partner with other institutions to seek the good of the city together?

These are questions I ask myself as I seek to be more faithful and send out the middle schoolers of my church.


  • Albert Cheng

    Albert Cheng is an assistant professor at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, where he received his PhD in education policy. He teaches courses on the history and philosophy of education as well as education policy analysis. He is known for his research on character formation, school choice policy, faith-based schooling, and homeschooling. He also serves on the editorial board for the International Journal of Christianity and Education. In addition to being a Cardus Senior Fellow, he is an research affiliate with Charassein: The Character Assessment Initiative at the University of Arkansas and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. He has a master's degree in education from Biola University and was a high school math teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area after completing a mathematics degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

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