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Dean Emeritus James R. Wilburn Edits Collection of Essays for New Book on James Q. Wilson’s Moral Sense

Dean Emeritus James R. Wilburn

Cover of James R. Wilburn's book

The Pepperdine University Press has published Character and the Future of the American University: A Pathway Forward with James Q. Wilson’s Moral Sense, a collection of essays edited by James R. Wilburn, Dean Emeritus of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Written by a selection of prominent political scientists, philosophers, and scholars from prestigious institutions across the country, these essays, many of which have never before been published, discuss the importance and lasting influence of The Moral Sense (1993) by renowned political scientist James Q. Wilson, who served as the School of Public Policy’s Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy from 1999 until his death in 2012.

Wilson gained international acclaim for his “broken windows” theory for crime reduction—the idea that even minor legal infractions contribute to an atmosphere of fear and disorder that leads to more serious crimes—but himself believed The Moral Sense to be the most important of his 14 books, according to Wilburn. “The Moral Sense is a book that attempts to deal with the reality that humans have a moral sense, and you don’t necessarily need to believe in God,” says Wilburn. “It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. It just means that there is evidence in the sciences—not only the social sciences, but the hard sciences—that this human animal has a very important, deep-seated moral sense. So how do we react to that?”

The essays in Wilburn’s book, written by such notable featured contributors as Victor Davis Hanson, Harvey C. Mansfield, John J. DiIulio, Jr., and Robert Kaufman, among others, address the issues of character explored in Wilson’s The Moral Sense in the context of higher education. “Higher education is really on the ropes and is facing some very difficult years ahead,” says Wilburn. “The early universities were all based on the idea that humans are a special animal that has a sense of right and wrong which needs to be fine-tuned and made clear, and that’s when it usually happens—during the college years of our lives.” 

According to Wilburn, one of the most important aspects of Wilson’s work is the concept that debating important moral and ethical questions is ingrained in the structures that define our lives. “These questions don’t just belong in a religion class or in reading the Bible or in going to church or synagogue every week,” he says. “They’re built into the human animal, in the kind of families we develop, the kind of governments we encourage, the kind of culture we create, the kind of opportunities that citizens of a community have to develop into their fullness. All of that depends heavily on our view of character.”

Wilburn argues that higher education is facing one of the most critical times in its history, particularly with regard to what the mission and purpose of the university should be, and what its responsibility is to society at large. “One of higher education’s major roles is the development of character, and it does it partly to hold a community, a whole country, and eventually, hopefully, the whole world accountable,” he says. “The university has a responsibility to influence character in an intentional way.” These issues of character are so fundamental to who we are as human beings, believes Wilburn, that “no matter who you are, this is a book you need to read."

Character and the Future of the American University can be purchased in hardback directly from the Pepperdine University Press and in paperback and e-book formats on Amazon.