Book Review – Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels

Tim Leet (May 2020)

If you care about the developing character of young people in schools, you will want to explore Catherine Sanderson’s new book, Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels.  This book includes much of what many approaches to character development often lack: careful attention to the power of situations, an emphasis on skill building, and a strong grounding in contemporary scholarship.

The book is divided into three major sections, with the first dedicated to exploring why, in times of trouble, social situations conspire to silence good people who might otherwise want to intervene.  These chapters address a common misunderstanding among teachers and should be required reading for all of us.  Too often we think of character as the backstop of bad behavior, a kind of failsafe possessed by people with “strong character” and the ultimate goal of our education efforts.  Social psychologists in recent decades have amply demonstrated how mistaken this idea is — and not just for young people but for every one of us.  Since this section of the book describes many situational forces that prevent us from acting, I found myself wondering at times why the book wasn’t entitled Why We Don’t Act.

The second section looks at three important arenas and some prototypical misbehavior that occurs in each: bullying in schools, sexual misconduct on college campuses, and unethical behavior in the workplace.  Sanderson’s attention is devoted primarily to the social context in which these behaviors occur and how individuals can step in and interrupt bad behavior.  At the heart of the matter are cultures that shrug off misconduct as inevitable or the cost of doing business.  Changing a culture, therefore, changes the social context in which these behaviors occur.  With Sanderson’s express emphasis on the social forces that drive behavior, shifting cultural norms and improving the understanding of those norms are essential.  The reader can’t help but agree with the author, but of course, the call to change an organization’s culture is much more simply said than done.  I found myself looking for more recommendations on that front than Sanderson chose to provide.

In the third section the author moves fully into the task of how to create “moral rebels” – individuals who possess the confidence and skill to interrupt bad behavior.  This is the shortest of the three sections, but if you are professionally and personally invested in character education, it is likely the section of most importance to you.  Here, experienced educators will find themselves on more familiar ground in Sanderson’s discussion of empathy, perspective taking, and moral courage.  Her attention to skill building — the active core of what we now refer to as social-emotional learning — is spot on, but professional educators might wish for more sensitivity to developmental differences between children at different ages.   In fairness, the target audience for Why We Act is not expressly educators, so it might be that a critique that asks for greater focus on developmental issues is misplaced.

Sanderson writes with an easy, fluid style, and the book is full of short vignettes and case studies to keep the reader interested.  At the same time, the work is peppered with footnotes that direct us to learn more about the high-quality research that she cites throughout.  Sanderson packs a lot of information into just 200 pages, yet a reader primarily interested in character, per se, may be left looking for more.  In the end, Why We Act has little to say about preventing the kinds of bad behavior Sanderson’s moral rebels are supposed to combat.  Certainly, confronting unethical conduct is one piece of character education’s agenda, but we are, perhaps, even more interested in what we can do in the early years to prevent that unethical conduct in the first place.

I strongly recommend Why We Act, particularly for the way Sanderson urges us to widen our lens and look at situational factors and the power of culture to shape behavior.  She asks us to move beyond the conception of character as a suite of personal virtues — our own backstop of bad behavior — toward a more complete understanding of why we act the way we do.

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