One Man In His Time Plays Many Parts
Today I had the honour to debate the following at the Policy Exchange Think Tank in London: ‘Is Character Education a Waste of Time?’ This was further explained by the Chair, Jonathan Simons in this way: “The issue is… can we teach it [character] in the formal way, in the same way as we teach other subjects…?” (You can hear the debate on the audio link below)
This was my contribution:
I never thought I’d be sharing a platform with Toby Young let alone debating a motion where I am on the same side as him. Toby is an extraordinary character as is Anthony Seldon and James O’Shaughnessy, extraordinary characters all. I feel a bit of fraud, a walk on part, sharing the stage with these lead players in our national narrative.
I must admit to something, paradoxically, my day job is to teach character… I am a drama teacher by trade and some people think drama in the curriculum is a waste of time so I am very well placed to discuss this topic.
In Old English Caracter meant a symbol marked on the body or an imprint on the soul. At an ‘Option evening’ a year 9 boy came over to my table with his dad to inform me he wanted to take drama for GCSE, his Dad said: “My son wants to take drama, can’t think why, when I was at school drama was for poofs!” The imprint of that character has remained on my soul…
In theatre, it is said, that an actor knows how great a part is by how many choices the character has,… moral dilemmas if you will. Brecht called this the ‘not… but…’ I am not going to do this, but I am going to do this… For Brecht’s characters the choices were often bleak. He talked of a corridor with doors, the actor has to show the door the character chooses and also all the ones they rejected. May I venture this idea? Character is partly how we respond to choices. And our children have so many choices these day, some glorious, some bleak, they wander our corridors, and are often lost.
According to Childline more children are considering suicide than ever before, with more than 34,500 calls from under 18s talking about killing themselves. Social media, more angst about the future, more pressure to perform, might be part of the problem. The teenager who killed the well loved teacher Ann Maguire talked about how “It’s kill or be killed. I did not have a choice. It was kill her or suicide.”
We need schools and other institutions to have more time to listen and help rather than add to the burden kids already feel with more telling them how to behave, believe me, as a teacher, they get A LOT of this and we don’t need kids worrying about whether they’ve done their character education homework or not. Schools need strong pastoral systems, spotting and supporting children when they need help, this is often when they are faced with difficult choices or having made wrong choices they need love and support. A good counselling service in a school, with good connections to mental health services, is worth far more to character development than ersatz character lessons.
In schools to support character development we need to model humanity and discuss what it is to be human throughout the curriculum, in the context of of what children are learning and experiencing. This is especially possible through the arts. For Keats, the soul is the self as formed by the narrative of life. And indeed this narrative can involve many versions of who we are…‘one man in his life plays many parts’… School should help us form and understand our own and others’ ‘narratives of life.’
The reason that people are perceiving a lack of ‘something’ in education might be because the curriculum has narrowed. With the introduction of the English Bacc arts subjects have seen a decline. Now some schools are adding another hour or so of maths and the humanities are being squeezed. If we then add an hour or so a week of ‘character’ lessons something will have to give. The curriculum is becoming all STEM and no flower, how is that going to help kids with the narratives of life?!
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues says that: Character education is about the promotion of a core set of universally acknowledged cosmopolitan virtues. But are these so called virtuous ‘cosmopolitan’ characters really what we need? How about naughty ones? In the summer of 1884, the headmaster of Ascot Prep school for boys wrote on Winston Churchill’s report card: “Conduct has been exceedingly bad; he is not to be trusted to do a single thing… [he] has no ambition.” Would taught character lessons have knocked these behaviours out of him? Maybe difficult times call for difficult characters rather than those with ‘universal cosmopolitan virtues’?
Aristotle wondered whether family or state is the best institution for sponsoring education in virtue. He, mistakenly, chose the state. Mao insisted that education should instil proletarian and revolutionary virtues. Yes, you knew where this was going: the Hitler Youth indulged in three activities: physical training, training in the National Socialist world-view (brainwashing) and character building. (The Nazi Virtues for Youth included: Honesty, Order, Loyalty, Honour, Duty, Discipline, Self control, Resilience (Hardness), and Courage…)
Interestingly, in Tsarist and communist Russia, the Russian intelligentsia never trusted the state to act as arbiter of cultural norms: Vospitanie (Upbringing incl. moral education and inculcation of values, though a contradictory view is available here) was inculcated by family, or individual role models. I’m with the Russian intelligensia it is not the job of the State, or schools on behalf of the state, to tell us what characters we should aspire to be.
But even if we wanted to follow Hitler and Mao and go ahead with formal lessons in character, for the scientifically minded, the important question remains: does formal character education work?
No, there is no strong evidence that it does. EEF report nov 2013: not much “is known about how far it is possible to develop a young person’s ‘non-cognitive’ skills through intervention, or whether such changes lead to improved outcomes, especially in the long-term.’ ‘Some non-cognitive skills including ‘grit’ and self-control correlate strongly with outcomes but appear to be more akin to stable personality traits rather than to malleable skills.’
Formal character education is as relevant as Astrology.
Separate lessons in character are wrong headed because they will further narrow the already narrowed curriculum. School should help us reflect on who we are and what it is to be human, rather than give us an arbitrary list of state sponsored or company sponsored virtues which are wrong headed because though they hint at a universality they are cliches that don’t get near to the truth.
Instead let’s have a rich and varied liberal arts curriculum, lets give children access to the best that has been thought, said and done and lets get them to add to the best that’s been thought, said and done. Let’s give them real and authentic experiences and choices through which they might enrich their narratives, their characters.
The explicit teaching of character IS more than a waste of time, and by squeezing the curriculum and being explicitly taught in an unimaginative, satisfy Ofsted tick box way: it could also be a diminution of the character itself.
Links for Character Ed:
Knightly Virtues Programme (Jubilee Centre)