Character formation in an age of uncertainty

Developing “character” is a perennial aim in education, but there is little agreement on exactly what it is or how to find it

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A number of schools were “really stuck’ in terms of discipline and behaviour, complained Gavin Williamson in his first major intervention as Secretary of State for Education. He demanded “proper and full discipline” and proposed the creation of a “crack team” to work with schools that are struggling to instil it.

He did not mention character. 

Today, however, few would dispute that character is important for life chances and for relations with friends, family and wider society. Evidence of its perceived importance is everywhere. If you wish to become a UK citizen, you must meet a “good character requirement”. If you find yourself in court, then your defence may involve character witnesses, who will testify to your good name. People judge politicians not only on their policies, but increasingly on their character.

So what is it? Definitions vary. Character is about who we are and who we can become. It is not a fixed set of easily measured traits incapable of modification. Throughout history, a range of ideological positions from Left to Right have contested and reinterpreted character. A Marxist, for example, might regard character as a fluid entity, determined by pre-existing social power structures. A Calvinist might view it as something decided by God. Such is the extent to which character has been reimagined that today it is overgrown with redefinitions and interpretations. These numerous misrepresentations are further compounded by exaggerating one or other of its component features, or simply mistaking good behaviour for good character.

Any attempt to define character and personal values as simply enabling young people to better understand and function in their immediate surroundings is insufficient. Character and virtues are deeper than this. If virtues are considered to be good human qualities, then their acquisition ought to be a goal of education. Through character education we do not simply acquire social skills but focus, ultimately, on what kind of person we want to become. In technical terms, character can be thought of as a disposition to act in a certain specified way. The “better” the action, the greater the contribution to society.

‘One of Aristotles enduring insights is that character is partly natural and partly the result of education. He emphasises the importance of acting well’

Aristotle spent a lot of time thinking about character, asking what character “virtues” were and how they were connected. One of his enduring insights is that character is partly natural and partly the result of education. He emphasises the importance of acting well, in addition to recognising the right path. Character ultimately requires action to prove an individual’s resolve. For example, a soldier might be naturally fearless but it takes education to distinguish courageous risk-taking from carelessly throwing one’s life away. Consider courage, caution and cowardice as a kind of spectrum—you can fail in character terms by being overly cautious or overly reckless. Courageous action gets it just right. 

Some character educators want people to have good characters without having specified the values necessary to achieve a “good character”. They argue that we should develop moral character without believing in moral truths, but in doing so, they have only half the picture.

Character is not achieved within a vacuum, for in order to become a member of a society, an individual needs to grow up in a culture, reacting to the influences, values and traditions prevalent within it. Our activity in shaping our own and other people’s character is important. The early years of a child’s life and education are crucial. Childhood socialisation is responsible for many of the virtues and vices that largely remain with us throughout our lives.

The formation of character has been a perennial aim of education. Yet it lends itself neither to a single fixed definition nor to superficial analysis. This is because character speaks of large human questions of purpose and meaning. Formative education is an enormously complex concept. While there is broad agreement about the importance of character formation, this does not extend to the content of what it is or how it ought to be acquired. 

Schools shape their pupils so they cannot be neutral on ethical questions. Education does not happen in a vacuum but is constrained by rules: not just uniform, but also behaviour and manners. Moreover, teachers are important role models for young people, with our research at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues showing schools and teachers coming second only to the parent in the perceived influence on a young person’s character. This means education, through school ethos and the example of teachers, cannot help but influence certain moral values, albeit indirectly. As G.K. Chesterton once said: “It is not the things you say which children respect, when you say things, they very commonly laugh and do the opposite—it is the things you assume that really sink into them. It is the things you forget to even teach that they learn . . .”

Just as definitions of character and its development reflect different theoretical approaches and traditions, they in turn favour one or more pedagogies.

Neo-Aristotelian approaches view virtues as constitutive of the good life and envisions the goal of education as forming people so they can live well and live rightly in a world worth living in: who we are and what we do is linked. Education therefore ought to teach us the skills to live well so we can answer the classic pair of questions: “Who am I?” and “How should I live?” Aristotle saw a direct link between how people should live and how society should be structured to make such lives possible. This approach reflects the primacy of character and character formation. Providing us with one of the most developed and historically inflected conceptions of character, Aristotle gives a central role to virtue.

Simply put, a virtue is a good habit and a habit is an abiding quality in a person that inclines them to feel and act in certain ways. Therefore, a virtue is a habit that inclines one to act in a good manner, both externally and intentionally. By character we decide not just what we ought to do, but who we will be. Virtues can be both valuable in themselves as well as for the acts they produce and the idea of the human good consists both in virtuous actions and in being a person of a certain character. The good for the individual and the good for the community are both necessary parts of the good of humankind—it humanises society.

Acquiring virtues is therefore necessary to live a flourishing life. How we live a good life forms an intrinsic part of how we act in society; requiring, as it does, a commitment to foster the flourishing of all human beings in order that we can fulfil our potential. Aristotle would have said it is in our self-interest to desire the good life and he believed that we can and ought to teach the intellectual and moral virtues for right action. In sum, he concludes that the virtues determine who we are and the kind of world we see. 

The idea of character, here, includes not only what are called moral and intellectual virtues, which ought to be inseparable in the process of character formation, but also a concern for what makes a full and meaningful life. If the goal of education is the search for the good life, the question is, to what end? Character formation in the neo-Aristotelian understanding is, however, an overarching concept. Whether a person is virtuous is governed by what we call character. Aristotle would have advocated that we must surround the student with all the positive influences which society deems healthy while training their intellect so they eventually become the critic of those influences.      

Character is often cited approvingly by teachers, parents and politicians each with their own understanding, but one that is not necessarily related to each other. Diverse conceptions and assumptions about character has led to ambiguity and therefore character formation/education/development, remain controversial terms because of the variety of ways in which they are defined. The lively debate about character formation reflects how remarkably resilient a concept character formation has proven to be. But it remains true that any genuine education must move from information, to formation and then to transformation. It involves the entire person—all that makes us more human. 

The cultivation of character has been seen as a primary function of culture and education, particularly since schools first appeared. Indeed, knowledge acquisition was traditionally secondary to character formation. What was taught was believed to have the potential to stir the imagination, pass on enduring values and disclose the motives that actuate human character. Formation is meant to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than simply serve the state. The traditional idea of a liberal education conceived of education as a process in which a student would be transformed morally. Formation is not passive, but involves the learner’s active participation and free choice.

Therefore character formation is not about following rules and commandments, because people are not components of a machine. Character formation is life-long and continuous and should not be elusive in schools, but treated as a good in itself, similar to the goals of a liberal education. Yet, today, many of our schools are still searching for a common language or an agreed set of expectations about character formation.

I suggest that schooling should not simply be about acquiring academic and social skills, for it is ultimately about the kind of person a student becomes. This is because humans have a purpose beyond being an instrument or tool in social processes, which is not achieved in a vacuum. In order to become a person, an individual needs to grow, flourish even, within a culture. The richer that culture, the more of a person they have a chance of becoming. Institutions and schools have a central purpose to educate, and the aim of education is to develop each individual as fully as possible: to make them more human.