Character Education

Just back from speaking on Radio 4 Sunday programme on ‘character education’ in reaction to this news story:

Multi-million pound award to support first research centre dedicated to understanding the UK’s character and values 

“An attitude of Gratitude creates blessings.”

– Sir John Templeton

The University of Birmingham has won a multi-million pound award to support the first UK centre dedicated to research into the Character, Values and Virtues that shape UK society. The over-arching aim of the new centre, which is supported by the John Templeton Foundation, is to contribute to the renewal of character and values in Britain through research and development activities.

Research projects in the centre will cover all areas of British society: from character education in schools, to examining the values that motivate professionals such as teachers, lawyers and doctors, as well as those in the media, finance industries and civil service.

I was speaking with James Arthur, director of the new centre, whom I know and who is by no means a ‘character educationist’ in the crazy US style. But I do worry about his approach.

Proponents of ‘character education’ often take a ‘virtue’ approach to morality. They see good behaviour as dependent on the cultivation of certain virtues or habits. They want to inculcate these habits or virtues through education as a way of solving social problems, which they see as arising from lack of character in people (usually especially young people).

There are obvious problems with this:

1. It’s not a solution to the problem it claims to solve

The ragtag bundle of social problems (everything from riots to phone-hacking) which ‘character’ proponents claim to have the means to solve have more complex causes and often can’t be wrapped up together ready for a single solution.

2. Whose character is it anyway?

If we accept that character is important than the debate still remains as to what character in particular we should be talking about. There are two main problems here. The first is that people will disagree about desirable characteristics. Curiosity, scepticism, independence of thought, tolerance and empathy seem to me like good characteristics for citizens of a free democracy to cultivate but others may disagree. (Proponents of character education tend in fact to emphasise quite different virtues – obedience to law, loyalty, integrity and so on.)

The second problem comes when we try to solve this first problem. The only way we can hope to do so is to apply some consequence-based thinking to what our desirable characteristics should be. So, we would say, ‘What will happen in situation x if person y is a person of z character?’ and if the outcome would be desirable, then that stands in favour of z character. But if this way of thinking is followed and we already have a way (thinking about consequences) of thinking about morality, why don’t we just teach children this process rather than ‘character’?

3 It risks marginalising the liberal humanist approach to morality and moral education

Character education can only gain ground at the expense of an approach valuing reason and moral autonomy. A ‘character’ approach ultimately can encourage unresponsive, automatic, unthinking conservatives, with ready-made moralities. It can shade too easily into moral authoritarianism and an inflexible approach. Overall, I prefer an approach to morality which sees identifying the right thing and doing it as a dynamic process. Morality for me is as much about thinking for yourself, being aware of context, and reflecting critically on your own decisions, feelings, and moral intuitions as it is about the cultivation of certain virtues and habits.


  1. Andrew: mind you don’t end up stuck forever on the trolley problem.

    1) True!

    2) There are questions that consequentialism can’t answer

    3) Non sequitur. Virtue ethics insists on thinking (Aristotle is clear about this). Moral autonomy sounds like a virtue–or at least, requires some). This Templeton project has a conservative flavour but this is not a necessary feature of virtue ethics.

    Virtue ethics is more useful than its rivals for thinking about education.

  2. Andrew Copson

    Brendan: a horrible prospect!

    2) Agreed

    3) ‘Character education’ as a project in the US and UK today is unmistakably both a conservative and predominantly religious project. My point may be a non-sequitur in a world of theory, but it’s very much a sound criticism of what constitutes ‘character education’ in practice.

  3. Sure, but that can’t be a reason for ceding the whole territory of virtue and character to the religious right. People have character traits, many of which are ethically important. I think we have to use these concepts to make sense of some very practical business in education. If you ran a school, I’m sure its educational aims would include helping pupils to become curious, independent-minded, etc. You would be a teacher of virtue, and you’d need the language of virtue and character to explain to staff, parents and pupils what you were doing. Ok, you might not use those words, but you’d be in that conceptual territory. So I don’t think this is a theoretical point. And I have already forgiven you for insinuating that my daily business is mere theory. That’s the sort of person I am.

  4. Andrew Copson

    Value and virtues definitely should play a part in moral education in schools. But the project of ‘character education’ as currently pursued is too much that way.

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