Forget Character ‘Passports’ and Embrace Eudaimonia

This is the text of my talk at the National Conference of the SSAT on December 4th 2014:


There is a dichotomy at the heart of the discussion about character education: on the one side we have people who think we can mould people into a homogenous morass of compliant worker types who need passports to get from one stage of their life to another and we have the types who think life is so miserable that you just need resilience and grit to get through it.

On the other side we have those who believe that by giving children a rich education offer they can have the opportunity to develop and express their character in a variety of uplifting ways. A joyous liberal arts education for all, an education that would have pleased Steve Jobs.

The Only Way Is Ethics:

Are we teleological, deontological or do we desire eudaimonia?

Teleological: being directed towards a goal (educate for jobs).

Deontological: sacrifice ourselves in order to do the right thing… (Grit, resilience)

Eudaimonia: having a good ‘indwelling’ spirit, a good genius, a lifelong pursuit founded on wisdom, practice, and excellence = flourishing…

Is character a far off aim formed from sacrifice or the living breathing stuff of the every day?

There are those in the field of character education who sit on their lofty perches of ‘great character’ whilst pronouncing on the character deficits of the oiks. These types look at the poor girl and boy, at their emaciated, sorry, obese bodies and think what they need is character, it’s them ‘what’ is wrong, if only they could change. The working class used to be ‘salt of the earth’ types, heroic in black and white films, kitchen sinked, understood… Now in the world of 3D and colour they are reality TV fodder, thick and lazy, scroungers on the state, a problem to be solved. Any minute now they might revolt.

(Interestingly mentions of the need for character education in books, articles and journals seems to correlate with economic circumstances. Last time interest in this field was so high (in fact it was higher) was in the 1930s, it went down significantly during war as it seemed that character was all right after all!)

If only our kids had the character to go to Oxbridge or to become a lawyer; if only they had the grit, resilience and mindset to get themselves beyond the sad existence of state handouts, drugs and violence. What they need is public school character…

Andrew Mitchell went to Rugby School

Or grammar school character:

David Mellor went to Swanage grammar school,

Now both these upstanding characters have fallen somewhat due to ‘character flaws’…

Thank goodness we still have people in authority who feel able to pronounce on matters of the character. The judge, Mr Justice Mitting went to a Roman Catholic Independent School ‘Downside’ he recently made a judgement about ‘character’ in his summing up of the Andrew Mitchell libel case:

‘PC Rowland (the copper at the centre of ‘pleb gate’) was “not the sort of man who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in temper”. Damning character with faint praise…

But at least our schools are trying: at Kings Science Academy in Bradford the students stand behind their desks and chant the ‘Character Promise’ before they are seated: ‘Character before knowledge’ is repeated seven times a day. If students do not display the right character traits, a ‘Character Development Card’ is placed on their desk, and a chain of consequences follows that can lead them to the senior leadership team and attendance at a ‘Responsible Character Workshop’.

The school’s (now-former) principal has been arrested and released on bail and the school is being investigated over alleged fraud by West Yorkshire Police…

This character education we are talking about is clearly not for everyone, it starts from a point that there is a problem with (some of) the youth and it needs sorting. Re-minted in the furnace of the Tottenham and then national riots in 2011. Are those from the wrong side of the tracks bad ‘characters’?

Tracey Miller ‘the baddest girl in Brixton’ was expelled from her school after attempting to stab another girl in her class. She said: ‘The first time I picked up a knife there was a character at home and he was a paedophile.’ She took the knife to school and was expelled… The next school I was sent to… They’d already heard of me there because of the knife incident, so I thought I’d carry on with with this reputation. I never intentionally set out to be that character but once I had… I carried on with it.” – Tracey is now a mentor, and a mother and now has a book out, ‘Sour’, what makes her compelling is that she took wrong choices, or faced with difficult choices, she made the right calls for her but not for ‘society’ who maybe would have preferred her to show humility, keep quiet and take the paedophile’s abuse. Is anger ever a positive character trait? To John Lydon Anger is an Energy…

Clearly rebellion is to be encouraged, for some it is an essential part of character education. Oakham School has a Rebel week, to which they invited a Government minister and the Conservative Philosopher Roger Scruton to sow the seeds of revolt!

How about this for rebellion? If Character Education led to a decrease in the GCSE pass rate would it be regarded as important? What if a truly courageous character, has the humility to not believe that their exam scores sum them up? And that they can show the worth of their character by ripping up their ‘Character Report Card’!

What if teaching, educating, was an enquiry into what it is to be human?

Let us spread in Matthew Arnold’s phrase more ‘sweetness and light’ who the hell wants more ‘resilience and grit’? Imagine, kids anxious about their exams, their jobs that don’t exist and then we say to them in the middle of their anxiety: ‘What you need is more resilience and grit!’ Should we be cruel to be kind…? Isn’t there enough anxiety and fear in the system?… Anxious helicopter parents and anxious teachers chasing kids every minute of the day brandishing their STEMS! What you need kids is this glorious green STEM and you will be rich hereafter! Extra classes until your eyes and brains bleed… Efficiency! Measuring! Parent them to be Early Years ready, Early Years them until they’re Primary ready… Primary them until they’re secondary ready, Secondary ‘em until they’re Uni or Work ready, 21st Skill ‘em until they’re ready for jobs that might never exist, Then work ‘em until they’re pension ready, then pension them off when they’re death ready.

Instead of adding more schemes and stuffing them like oven ready chickens

strip things down…

The best way of developing and celebrating character?

Sweetness and light – teach! Teach them stuff of importance and value, the best that has been thought, said and done, give them time to question it, think it, argue it, debate it, agree or disagree about what is ‘the best’. Allow them time to develop enthusiasms, to enthuse – from en theos the Ancient Greek for ‘With God’: give them time to practise. Help them to express articulately and beautifully, make and share with each other and reach out with an open hand to the world in ways that allow them to experience the feelings of creating excellence… raise them, support them to the highest so that they feel able to add to the best that has been thought, said and done. Give them breadth of experience so that they never feel like an outsider in any aspect of life in this country, allow them the space in which to make choices, let them live, breathe and enjoy the pursuit of wisdom! The head, the hand, and the heart, knowing, questioning and collaborating,  communicating and making… and having times when they can be alone, quiet and reflective…

Educate wisely, well and widely. Our Telos should be open ended, the philosopher kid out in the agora, deontologically we must be in harmony with our necessity a persistence founded through enthusiasm for what we must do… but most of all: embrace eudaimonia and flourishing for all!

5 thoughts on “Forget Character ‘Passports’ and Embrace Eudaimonia

  1. Found it really hard to narrate what we were doing in terms of eudaimonia in ofsted behaviour inspection precisely because it doesn’t tick boxes. Inspector agreed he would want his own child in this sort of school but really wanted a cut and dried rigid approach. We had no NEETS in an area of 26% youth unemployment. Turned out fine young men and women but I always excluded if teacher had been disrespected by ANYONE. Very few repeat exclusions but he said there should be fewer. I think if anyone swears at a teacher they should be sent home and they were.


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