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The Book of Virtues: 30th Anniversary Edition

William J. Bennett and Elayne Glover Bennett
Published by Simon & Schuster in 2022

The following is a book review by Todd C. Ream published in the Journal Gazette on December 4, 2022.

A surprising number of bookshelves in homes across the country display copies of William J. Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.” At 831 pages, its physical presence alone points to the ambitious nature of its readers. With a publication date of 1993, Bennett’s collection is a critical component in a movement that came to be known in public and private schools alike as character education.

Ongoing efforts by principals and teachers to focus on a particular virtue or character trait bear witness to the ongoing nature of such a movement. Individuals still unconvinced by the power of such a movement need only to take note of a selection of the sequels Bennett’s original volume spawned including “The Children’s Book of Virtues” (1995) and “The Book of Virtues for Young People” (1997).

Bennett rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s while serving as President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education and chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and then as President George H.W. Bush’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Viewing virtue formation as critical to the advancement of human potential, Bennett tapped into an idea as old as Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas but given new life by Notre Dame’s Alasdair MacIntyre that human beings live in narrated or storied contexts. As a result, their aspirations are ordered by virtues embodied by stories they hold – implicitly or explicitly – true.

If the publication of “The Book of Virtues” in 1993 was an act of aspiration, perhaps last Tuesday’s publication of the 30th anniversary edition by Simon & Schuster was an act of desperation.

The tragedy that students and teachers alike experienced at Littleton, Colorado’s Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, was almost unthinkable six years earlier. Schools across the country today, however, regularly participate in active-shooter drills as but one example of our present state of desperation.

Dedicated to the families of America, Bennett and his wife, Elayne Glover Bennett, open the 30th anniversary edition by acknowledging that however true the need for moral virtues was in the 1990s, “it’s even more true today.” As evidence, the Bennetts point to “More breakdown of the family. More drug use. Loss of faith in basic institutions like government, schools, and the news media” as among “the changes (that) have been for the worse.” The Bennetts, however, are also quick to note the world has changed for the better in “astounding advances in technology, medicine, and communication.”

Both the changes for the worse and for the better, however, fuel the Bennetts’ belief that the virtues found in their collection are needed now more than ever.

Advances in communication evidenced by the rise and proliferation of social media platforms allow loved ones separated by the miles to communicate on a basic level. Absent the virtues needed to order their use, however, social media platforms also become weapons that fuel isolation and, in turn, desperation, according to mounting numbers of studies.

Readers of the original edition will find the topics outlined in the 30th anniversary edition unchanged from the original edition. Stories highlighting the exhibition of virtue fall under 10 topics or sections including self-discipline, friendship, perseverance, loyalty and faith. While Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas may quibble with the selections and organization, they would support a properly ordered exercise of any of the virtues noted by the Bennetts.

Where the 30th anniversary edition differs from the original is in the stories included in each section as well as in how those selections are organized. For example, the section on friendship in the original edition opens with Robert Frost’s “The Pasture,” while the 30th anniversary edition opens with an unattributed poem, “Friendship.” This section in the 30th anniversary edition also includes “Tashira’s Turn,” a selection not found in the previous edition.

The differences between the two editions will also remind readers that while the virtues the Bennetts note are timeless, the stories that animate those virtues are fluid. Some stories are classics and thus may transcend generations. Other stories are more poignant during particular seasons. Revisiting the stories that populate such a canon proves necessary in order to insure their ongoing appeal and relevance. Readers of the original edition as well as readers unfamiliar with it will find the 30th anniversary edition worthwhile.

Perhaps the publication of William J. Bennett and Elayne Glover Bennett’s 30th Anniversary Edition of “The Book of Virtues” is both an exercise of aspiration and desperation. If their selections on friendship help us think about a properly ordered exercise of various social media platforms, such an accomplishment alone would make the Bennetts’ effort worthwhile.

Fewer lonely people may just mean fewer desperate people – perhaps one of the greatest gifts we could offer our children as well as their teachers and principals.