True grit? Whose job is it to build resilience and character?

This is the text of a talk I gave as part of an excellent and interesting panel at the London Festival of Education, 28th February 2015, some of the words below might be different to those uttered!

To paraphrase Mary Shelley:

“It may…be judged indecent in me to come forward on this occasion; but when I see a fellow-creature about to perish through the cowardice of her pretended friends, I wish to be allowed to speak, that I may say what I know of… character [and who should build it.]”

We can’t even agree on the colour of a dress let alone what traits we should instil in every human being!

Whose job is it to make us gritty who can build a modern Jerusalem from our unpleasant character?

What about the Daily Mail? Yes…

The Daily Mail reported that ‘Head transplants’ will be possible in 2 years time.
The Guardian and the Independent somewhat weirdly reported it as ‘Full body transplants’ in 2 years time. Isn’t that one person gets into bed and another gets out?

We are in the world of ‘what works’ and I would wager a transplant of the head or body would make a difference to your character… and your resilience…

This would be done on the NHS, perhaps they can build our character…

Is it a body transplant or a head transplant and where does your character lie in this moment of scientific breakthrough? I mean do I donate my head or my body? I need to know, it makes a huge difference to my after death experience…

If the health service were responsible for building character you could get a head transplant on demand! I’ve got a shite character I need a new one! “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia?!? Or, at least, Alvin Stardust…?” Or Spock! Yes! We need logic! Science should tell us all we cry…! An MRI scan will show how to improve character.

But is this a search for truth about character or pragmatic instrumentalism ? What works is our cry! Not what is wise…

In the end your character will no longer be your responsibility. I fear it will be the duty of the school and its scientific approach to your well being.

The DfE will hold competitions to award character cash… A committee holed up somewhere in the DfE set up to pronounce on what ‘characteristics of character’ are wanted in the 21st century?

And the two worst traits of education come together: Utopia and Utility: Utopian desire for the ‘uber-character’ and the utilitarian desire for the optimum worker.

Scientific managerialism: Oh education as a ‘system’

Character traits will be written on tablets of sto… No, written on tablets: iPads and the like where they will be sent over wires and wireless (nice to see that word making a comeback) to schools where they will be ignored until Ofsted say they will be reporting on the ‘characteristics of character’ in which case schools will suddenly bring in character education programmes and these will be ‘proven to deliver measurable characteristics of new improved character’ which will be added to the school’s big data:  progress 8 exam subjects and progress 8 virtue characteristics…

Instead of teachers teaching we will have education employees ‘delivering’ and the cost will be to the human relationships that underpin any school. Character seen as separate to education and something to be built. School as community replaced with a sales model: selling exam grades, ‘what works’ to ensure higher grade returns, and great character: competition driving education away from morality, from humanity and ethical concerns. At the heart of this the teacher is reduced to a frontline functionary

And we will be disappointed when we look upon our creations…

“Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? … I am solitary and abhorred.” – Frankenstein Pity the poor pupil who has their character messed with and hastily cobbled together by a committee of the virtuous sipping red wine and munching goose liver…

Grit and Resilience have replaced Matthew Arnold’s Sweetness and Light

A child will be a test tube, no longer a moral agent for their own life they will be prodded and nudged into becoming the finished article: The person of good character. As the rest of the day is filled with exciting lessons with iPads, we will have ultra efficient ‘mindfulness’ – to counteract your mobile device with its images of sex and Jihad – 3 minutes of mindfulness a day will calm you! We have the research evidence to prove it!
Pupils will get their character certificate detailing all the good character points they have accrued throughout their schooling. At 18 years of age they will have arrived and be suitable for Russell Group Universities, Oxbridge and later to work at HSBC, the BBC and the Daily Telegraph…

Those that fail will be expected to re-sit ‘character’ for eternity so that they might value resilience.

The instrumental desire to make education of character have some use – means that we have to define and measure its usefulness and we get lost in a language and a science of ‘utility’ where measures measure what is deemed to be useful to measure but as Hannah Arendt asked: “What use is use?”

And when we have measured and realised that the bits of character we have decided to value and have cobbled together in our young Frankensteins amount to naught but a can of beans…

“Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth.”

It is the role of the arts to articulate what it is to be human and open up areas for reflection… To not ‘build’ but to inform character… dismiss the arts and have a curriculum that is all STEM and no flower then of course character is diminished. Like a life without love. BUT WE KNOW THIS! A committee coming up with ersatz character graphs and character self reflection toolkits are an abomination! It is no-one’s job to build character, it is part of life itself! It is as though the phrase ‘knowledge is power’ has been set up as a falsehood. Knowledge about humanity as a set of empirically measured definitions will not come to be the mark of good character rather this will be the destruction of character itself. Because this determination of what knowledge is valuable… silences the very knowledge – the unknown unknowns that can help us most – mystery, magic, the spiritual, the emotional, the liminal…

and education can return to its purpose: a discussion about who am i and who are we?

8 thoughts on “True grit? Whose job is it to build resilience and character?

  1. Hi Martin – I’m so nearly completely with you on this.

    I think it is absolutely true that strategic attempts to engineer character through schools are misguided: Almost certainly it will fail, and quite likely, it will backfire – either through the creation of a twisted abomination regarding what we come to perceive as good character, or through a reactive recoiling from the idea of developing character at all (which I’m nervous you might be retreating into).

    The problem is… Yes, we can’t be sure exactly what character traits we really want as a society as a whole. Yes, character – like expertise – probably develops over a long time through a myriad of hard to track, even harder to predict, experiences (except perhaps for extreme, life-changing events). And yes, why should this necessarily be the specific role of schools?

    However, in as much as character might be described as ‘a tendency to behave in a certain way’, clearly it IS developable, although, like intelligent behaviour, genetics will play a role. And, although no one thing can be held accountable for the character flaws which a person has (not genetics, not parents, not teachers, not the person themselves – although ultimately we do hold the person themselves accountable) – all of these things inevitably has some responsibility towards how the character turns out. We as teachers are in a position of power over children for thousands of hours of their formative life. We affect their character whether we like it or not. And once we realise this, then we are forced to make some judgement regarding how we will use that power.

    Now, it could certainly be defendable to say – I simply can’t control where this ultimately goes, therefore I’m not going to worry particularly about long term character development. I’m just going to act with these young people in a way which I personally value on a day to day basis, stimulating and challenging them according to the intellectual goals of my subject.” We can certainly say that, and I think that’s what most of us do.

    However, what we can’t do is to refuse to have an opinion regarding the desirable character traits that we would hope to come out of the children in our charge, or certainly to pretend that we don’t influence things by every aspect of the way we conduct our lessons.

    What we also can’t do is retreat into saying that it’s not the “purpose of schooling”. As I’ve explained here…
    …we just don’t have the power to definitely say that.

    For what it’s worth, in our school we do talk about character. We have assemblies which try to instill a vision of desirable qualities, and occasionally we have small ways of trying to keep these things in the minds of pupils over the course of their normal schooling. Essentially though, we try to develop character through providing a broad, varied and challenging curriculum and hope that teachers will act with conscientious integrity in their dealings with the children. That’s as far as I think we would ever go, but I wouldn’t want us to ever act like it’s not relevant or fundamental to our schooling.

    Thanks for talking about these things – I really must try to get to LFE16!



  2. Perhaps it’s just me, but all those years as a kid listening to being told how to behave were like water off a duck’s back. I can’t believe we still think that has any effect at all.

    We learn character from watching people we admire and then imitating them. Peer pressure adds a bit. But being told how to behave has pretty much zero effect.

    The Soviets tried a very long term, very thorough experiment into changing character via education. It failed spectacularly, as the children involved saw through it immediately. The only effect it did have was make society even more hypocritical than the West, saying one thing while doing another.

    The fascist Spanish regime tried too, but from the other wing. It too failed.

    I would argue that trying to instill character deliberately via education is likely to be counter-productive. The Russians are as religious as they have ever been, despite an education system designed to ridicule religious belief. The Spanish meanwhile, despite decades of pushing Catholicism in schools, are less religious than ever.

    Teachers can only teach character by their own behaviour. Are they the honest and caring person they are supposed to be? Or do they talk a good talk, but in actions are unreliable and uncaring?


  3. Another superbly engaging piece. It strikes me that the space between the position Martin is taking (or perhaps the picture he is painting) and the excellent response from Chris Parsons above, is worth exploring.

    I agree entirely with Martin on a number of points: that character education can be used as a trojan horse for other agendas (including protection of arts education, perhaps?); that developments in character education should not be led or ultimately decided by means of elitism (the arts being among the worst offenders here in my experience); that the development of grit and resilience should not be the main focus; and that character education should not attempt to be too ‘scientific’. This is all obvious, isn’t it?!

    Perhaps then, these criticisms can lead us to a set of less obvious but crucial principles: apolitical, socially just, humanistic, ethical, inclusive, compassionate, pro-social, collaborative, interdisciplinary etc.

    Character, values, skills, attributes, virtues – whatever words we use – are an inherently human subject of exploration. People and communities should be empowered to make their own decisions regarding “who am I and who are we” by having access to knowledge and exercising their individual agency and/or democratic capacities as the case may be. It should not be about conforming to a set of externally imposed rules or standards. It is not the role of a teacher to transmit lessons in character, but it would be even more dangerous if teachers were to ignore or dismiss their position of power as a moral authority and the formative nature of schooling.

    Any notion of character education needs to position itself way beyond the nebulous exploration of ‘traits’ (or the ‘bag of virtues’ approach, see Kohlberg) and how they should be developed, attained or built. It should be about ‘Learning to be Human’ (see John MacMurray) as Martin alludes to in his piece. Conceived in this way, character education becomes intimately linked with the transcendent purposes of education itself, as Chris identifies. This is the space between their positions as I see it, and this is where notions of character can become useful, fun and interesting.

    So the questions of ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘who’ are the ones to be addressed first. Scotland aside, the UK appears to have started its character debate with the ‘what’: personally I find the emergent answers of grit, resilience, British Values and Military Ethos completely terrifying.


    1. Thank you very much indeed Gary. I’m totally with you on this. I think you have described very astutely a higher way of approaching things, which I am sure is where Martin’s vision is too and which I would like to explore further personally related to our general search for purpose in education. I think I was simply anxious that we could recoil from the Government’s contrived initiatives, whilst not going-on to attempt an unrealistic ‘surgical removal’ of character development as an aspect of what we do.

      Thank you for your erudite and insightful addition 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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