Aghast at the social crisis they are facing, politicians have turned to their favourite political football, education, to fix it
Winston Churchill. He had it. A special character. A character that changed the world. But what is it and how does it develop?
“The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual” is just one definition. The question is, and this is a deeply philosophical question that I won’t even attempt to answer in this article; how much of character is created by nature and how much by nurture? In other words, what are you born with and what are you born without?
The British government, represented in this case by education secretary Nicky Morgan, has recently made clear its belief that an exemplary character can be taught through something called “character education”. Like maths. Or science. Not only that, they have started to outline (albeit vaguely), how character will be taught and, with the help of the Sutton Trust, come to some conclusions on what great character traits are. Most confusingly, but not surprisingly, extrovert character traits have been lauded over introvert, much to the dismay of the quiet, front-seat intellectual and the joy of the back-seat class clown.
When you start to dissect all of this, there are myriad flaws.
Firstly, it is my personal view that the presumption that character can be wholly transferred in a similar way to knowledge is wrong. It conveniently ignores two realities. The first; that there is much evidence, both scientific and otherwise, that character is separate from personality, not one of the same. And with this in mind, there is a general acceptance that at least some personality traits are innate and fixed.
The second, that even if character can be nurtured, there is surely no substitute for pure human experience in building it. Unfortunately, it seems to be a long-standing rule of common humanity that character can’t be bought, taught or trained. It can’t be requested and delivered like a Chinese takeaway. It can’t appear out of nothing. The physical experience of climbing a mountain, swimming across a lake or travelling across lands. The emotional experience of heartbreak, failure and joy. The cognitive experience of clarity, realisation and doubt. The experience of life. An experience that has to be grasped, acknowledged and reflected on by the recipient for any meaningful change to take place. Of course, whether it is or not must come down to a range of mitigating factors, few of which can be controlled; state of mind, personality, intrinsic motivation, peer group, upbringing and timing. In summary, not only is character such an elusive and complex commodity, its building ultimately rests on the individual concerned.
So, with it being so unclear as to how character is generated and developed, surely a more cautious and nuanced approach to how character education is introduced as a concept in schools needs to be adopted? Not according to the government. They are diving headfirst into a potentially expensive national experiment and using the inspectorate as a lever to exert pressure on schools to teach character and teach it well.
"What I want to see in teacher training is more talk about character education and getting teachers to really think about it," Nicky Morgan said recently. "We have been careful not to define what we mean by character but we think the best schools and the best teachers know how they build strong, resilient young people. It is about setting high expectations and ambitions for them". It all seems so simple. Yet, according to the Jubilee Centre, a research centre that specialises on character education, the ultimate aim is very grand indeed: “The ultimate aim of character education is the development of good sense or practical wisdom: the capacity to intelligently choose between alternatives”.
It sounds as though today’s teachers and schools are going to be charged with finding the answers that have escaped the greatest world leaders, philosophers and thinkers of this age; how to change humanity for the better. In between filling in numbers into spreadsheets, planning lessons and trying to keep up with Progress 8, teachers and school leaders will be asked to add this monumental request into their in-tray; solve the conundrum of human development.
With Ofsted now judge and jury on British values education, these latest remarks by Morgan will mean similar sway on enforcing character education. The worrying result of all of this is a scattergun approach to “teaching character” with schools reacting to the government’s latest craze with haste. Like any policy dash, some results are good and wholesome, others more whimsical and flawed. On the plus side (although not necessarily for the governments objective), an increase in the stature and place of the educational visit and some diversification of curriculum content.
However, on the flip side, a raft of measures that don’t seem to acknowledge the depth of experience and intervention required to make even the slightest of dents in a child’s character profile; Assemblies containing plentiful quotes by MLK and Mandela, the use of in vogue buzz words like resilience, persistence and grit whenever and wherever possible, growth mindset mantra plastered on every corridor wall and the reciting of rags-to-riches stories of celebrity “achievers”, often linking the attainment of character with fame and fortune; all contribute to character education that will most likely have little to no impact. The idea that entire schools of morally sound people can be created is hardly evidence-based.
Much of this establishment panic about the national character has in part been brought about by the realisation that the “big society” is failing to materialise and panic over the alarming trend of some teenagers to holiday in Syria. Aghast at the social nebulous confronting them, politicians have scrambled for solutions and preferably ones with quick-fix results. Of course, as they always do, they immediately turned to Ms Morgan’s political football: education.
Someone should press the pause button. There is a danger that millions of children could be subjected to harmless yet entirely futile exercises. Saying we want young people to develop good character traits is one thing. Saying that we can do it through schools and specific curriculum changes is another. It’s a huge leap and yet another demand on educators and their institutions.