The Banality of Character Education

In her Essay on the Banality of Evil Hannah Arendt wrote that:

The nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

Now, I’m not meaning to imply that bureaucrats are evil, but  looking at this quote, away from its context, is useful for what I wish to say about ‘Character Education’. By trying to make Character Ed a thing that can be taught explicitly, measured, reported on, with data collected and dispersed to all and sundry, it could be said that the very idea of ‘character’ is transmuted from being a collection of difficult to define human traits that might emerge over time, to that of a bureaucrat’s idea of character. They apply, what Theodore Dalrymple calls: ‘a thin veneer of science’ to make character part of the administrative machine: Let’s call something ‘Grit’; let’s define it, measure it, report on it and collect vast amounts of data to show that a child’s ‘grit’ score has increased by 7% over the past year and celebrate this. By doing this we dehumanise the subject.

Character, taken as a whole, can be talked about but in the way that someone might talk about art – what they like about some work and what they don’t, it is through the conversations of people by which we judge ourselves and each other. We change as we respond to our daily habits and our daily tribulations, and how we meet those imposters triumph and defeat, illness and wellness, love and despair, and when we give succour and need it for ourselves. Through all this our character builds, breaks and builds again. Give it a score, a flow chart or a graph and it’s no longer character, it is its opposite – it is the dehumanised picture of what someone with a measuring tape and a calculator thinks character is. It isn’t.

I have long argued that by teaching a rich thought-through curriculum, involving a wealth of experiences and a rich access to the arts and humanities, indeed, a good number of subjects taught by teachers who invest their pupils’ time in the pursuit of wisdom that ‘character’ is developed. Here is a video in which I argue this very thing in a debate at Policy Exchange. So, it was gratifying to read this piece by Paul Tough, author of ‘How Children Succeed’, in which he writes:

No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets; hearing lectures on perseverance doesn’t seem to have much impact on the extent to which young people persevere… there is growing evidence that even in middle and high school, children’s non-cognitive capacities* are primarily a reflection of the environments in which they are embedded, including, centrally, their school environment**.

Can we make all schools life-affirming and avoid turning them into banal little offices run by petty bureaucrats?

*not sure he’s got this bit right, ‘non-cognitive’ is difficult to achieve…

**this bit is surely not right either, genetic influences play a large part too I expect…


9 thoughts on “The Banality of Character Education

  1. Since you start with Hannah Arendt, I’d also recommend to you something else she argued for: teaching students the importance of solitude. Not long after Eichmann in Jerusalem was published, Arendt clarified her thoughts in a series of lectures given in 1965 and 1966 at the New School for Social Research and the University of Chicago published under the title of “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy.” Beginning with the premise that “morality concerns the individual in his singularity”, she argues that there are three different states that the individual is by his/her self inside the mind where the struggle over being moral or not (and doing good/evil) exists: solitude, loneliness and isolation. She finds solitude being the state where one has that internal dialogue, where thinking takes place and where the individual is most likely to find answers to moral questions. She argues that the mind shifts between these three, but that a morality built from a state of solitude begets Socrates, Plato and Kant.

    Given our students’ world of perpetual distractions, one thing we can help them with is to build up the mental fortitude to be comfortable in solitude and thus be more open to that internal conversation. The fear of not being able to live with one’s self is the key to preventng more Eichmanns…

    Liked by 4 people

  2. But now that it’s been decided it’s a ‘good thing’, if they don’t define it and create a rubric of ‘character characteristics’, how will they measure it? And if they can’t measure it, how can they tell if the teachers ARE DOING THEIR JOBS PROPERLY?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the attempt to decouple morality from character is problematic in the first place. It goes hand in hand. Also I think that immaturity has led to the confusion between moral and social norms. It takes time and thought to distinguish between the two – something that Nietzsche didn’t manage as he conflated both.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting piece but you seem to imply that teaching something means you have to measure it. Many of the systems of measurement are deeply flawed, and your piece illustrates just that, rather than convincingly arguing against character education.


    1. Hi David, from what I know of it there are a number of areas where we might disagree. They have a lot of money to play with so some of their stuff looks great but I would question the overall direction. What do you think?


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