Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #1: Developing CharacterJanuary 10, 2011
In this post I identified a number of aims of education which can distract from the academic aim. Here I discuss one of them.
The least harmful, and the most traditional, extension of education beyond the purely intellectual is that of educating children in the moral virtues. A virtue is “a trait of character that is to be admired; one rendering its possessor better, either morally, or intellectually, or in the conduct of specific affairs” (Blackburn, 1994). From this definition it is clear that education, as I described it earlier, has a role in instilling the intellectual virtues into children. Other virtues, particularly the moral virtues, have also traditionally been regarded as part of the province of education. Schools help form attitudes and so it makes sense to consciously seek to ensure that those attitudes are appropriate and this is what it means to talk of a school having an ethos. My complaint is not that schools shouldn’t seek to build character in its students. My complaint is about what happens when it is believed that developing virtues can become a formal part of the curriculum; that we can have lessons in “goodness” or at least in “not being bad” or that we can distort academic disciplines in order to fit a moral agenda. I object to the idea that education should be a process of deliberate moralisation rather than simply an activity which is to be carried out morally.
A constant pressure to burden education with new moral purposes occurs due to those situations where a politician, or other opinion former, becomes concerned about an issue in society but can’t think of anything to do about it. In the absence of a clear and effective policy that deals with it directly they will jump on the idea that it should be a responsibility of the education system to preach against it. So for instance when Harriet Harman became concerned about domestic violence, she declared that: “We have to work to change attitudes in order to eliminate violence against women and girls and to make it clear beyond doubt that any form of violence against women is unacceptable” and proposed teaching this in schools. When ex-Eastenders star Brooke Kinsella was appointed as a government adviser on knife crime she was soon to be seen doing the media circuit declaring: “You know, in schools we have drug awareness and sexual health awareness and I don’t see why we can’t have some kind of knife and gun crime project that’s part of the curriculum.”
The belief is that any social problem that comes down to human behaviour is amenable to intervention by schools. No doubt there is truth in the claim that it is better for issues to be discussed in school than ignored. Contemporary concerns might well be appropriate subjects for an assembly or for discussion if they are touched on in by the content of, say, an English or history lesson. The problem is that it is believed that the academic curriculum itself is a suitable medium for changing attitudes. This is often the underlying mistake of some of the content of nonsense subjects such as PSHE and citizenship. The idea is that schools are the churches of the secular age, that they are a place where teachers get an unobstructed chance to preach to a willing congregation looking for moral guidance. However, even priests and ministers are likely to find that their congregations don’t obey their every word of guidance, and church congregations, by their very nature, consist of people who have chosen to come and listen to sermons.
Schools do shape attitudes, but they shape them by living them. If a school enforces rules against racist behaviour then they pass on the attitude that racism is unacceptable. If schools organise church services and prayer then they pass the idea on that religious adherence is to be encouraged. If schools punish violent behaviour with some severity and urgency then they pass on the message that violence is wrong. But this is a matter of schools behaving in accordance with their own values, not evangelising for the values of politicians and opinion formers. Without a strong belief in the value of education, a strong professional ethos among teachers, and schools with a clear mission and ethos, then any attempt to pass on values will simply pass on platitudes and fashionable ideas while simultaneously passing on all the wrong values through the culture of the school. (This was described here.) Additionally, even though I have argued before that teachers need to uphold ethical standards, I would also emphasise how acutely embarrassing it is for teachers to be expected to act as moral arbiters who dictate the correct attitudes for their students. I am happy to preach about the intellectual virtues of my subject. If I worked in a church school of the appropriate denomination, I could probably just about stretch to expressing approval of piety, but the idea of passing on a list of approved attitudes and moral beliefs would make me cringe with embarrassment, particularly if it was about some sensitive issue, like, for instance, sexual harassment:
Blackburn, Simon, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1994