Yesterday I took part in a panel discussion at the “Character v Knowledge” event organised by the East London Science School and The Education Foundation. Below is the transcript of my brief opening talk:
If Ignatius Loyola did say the famous Jesuit maxim, ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, I don’t think it was an idle boast but I am sceptical that many of the schools that claim to change character, to psychologically engineer our children’s attributes, are achieving anything of the sort.
Character, in this context seems to mean a jumbled mix of values, virtues, skills and attributes. If the goal of character education is to inculcate virtues, for their own sake, then why are successful programmes judged through improved exam results? Doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily make one successful, it is an end in itself. In practice, the rhetoric of character education seems more instrumentalist than virtuous, a training in skills that provide the means to achieve exam success and other personal gains.
Character is a skill according to many keen promoters of character education but if so then why is the problem of transfer largely ignored? Take being a ‘loving person’. The fact I am loving with my children doesn’t necessarily mean I will show love to my neighbour and certainly not that I will love studying geography. We use one word ‘loving’ but it means different things in different contexts. How much more transferable between domains are the ‘skills’ we have named curiosity and resilience?
My school’s rugby sevens team has just won the national trophy. Despite the character traits their many hours of training must have inculcated why is it that I can only guess which students in my classes were in the team through their muscular bulk, not their approach to cooperative work? If sport does inculcate useful attributes it seems transfer isn’t easy or guaranteed.
Such questions should be enough to give pause for thought – even without considering how unsuccessful large scale attempts at character education have been to date. In East Germany from 1958 – 1976 the full power of the state got behind the inculcation of a ‘socialist personality’ with attributes such as ‘mutual help and comradely cooperation’. There is some hubris in believing you can engineer a better society. Our own government’s attempts have been no more successful. Look at the dismal impact of PHSEE lessons, and the failure of SEAL.
Hope springs eternal and over the last few years many schools, influenced by Dweck, have opted for exhortation with general maxims or providing helpful prompts when task setting. They hope that reasoning with students will encourage them to apply suggested principles. Schools seem less willing to allow children to actually live with the consequences of failure or to compel children to behave in ways that could one day become good habits. Sure, efforts that have a narrow enough focus, for example on persuading children to work harder in school, should have some positive impact but has character changed?
Increasing self-esteem was the last big thing but we now know that often our efforts did more harm than good. What if too much perseverance stops people behaving pragmatically, thinking of clever short cuts? What if significant perseverance is learnt through serious failure? What if our unskilled attempts at amateur cognitive therapy go wrong?
It is possible to mould values and change children’s habits over the span of their childhood in reaction to the myriad of situations that arise naturally, through a judicious mix of exhortation, example and crucially compulsion also. That is what traditional parenting and schooling does and all we really know will work until such time as we can realistically claim to have a formula for creating good character. To quote Roger Scruton, “…wisdom is seldom contained in a single head, and is more likely to be enshrined in customs that have stood the test of time than in schemes of radicals and activists.”