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.


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