Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #1: Developing Character

January 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:

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Blackburn, Simon, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1994



  1. “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.”

    I think you’ve conflated several distinct themes in this post. I tend to agree that education has become a lever to and force through spurious attempts at social engineering and the ‘obvious suspect’ and first port of call when a knee-jerk political response is deemed necessary following tabloid induced moral panic (Kinsella/ the latest ‘killer’ drug etc).

    In particular, the whole ECM agenda is shot through with assumptions which 30 years ago would have been regarded as so illiberal, partisan and interfering that they would have provoked widespread dissent, if not outright defiance. Most notable was the fact that they slipped in unopposed…the ‘major’ opposition taking the form of raised eyebrows and tutting at the ‘workload’ implications, with no acknowledgement that it marked the educational manifestation of the Thatcher’s ‘TINA’ legacy… (Achieving economic Wellbeing..FFS…I recall my careers interview as being a lengthy chat significant only for my complete disinterest; the only memorable moment coming at the end with the guy’s beseeching look as he intoned the final warning he gave every interviewee: ” Whatever you do..first day..join the union. Compapre that with the happy-clappy, pie-in-the-sky, Fantasy Island drivel churned out by your average Connexions ‘operative’.)…not to mention the radical degree state interference in family life and parental autonomy.

    None the less, I think that education has always been a process of deliberate moralisation. The imparting of knowledge and the ability to think rationally and critically is in itself a moral end…as is the process of socialisation implicit in taking in information in a social setting (I know these aims are not always achieved but the attempt is a moral end). The ultimate aim of a liberal, secular education (don’t laugh..I said ‘aim’) is the attempt to instil tolerance; which can’t be seen as anything but a moral act.

    Social engineering and the desperate and misguided attempts to shove through received socio-political opinion is an insidious current in education, and, I think, the real target of your piece; particularly the unthinking relativist bollocks and neo-liberal economic agenda that’s littered both the humanities and ‘PS..whatever it is this week’.

    Educating children has always had a moral dimension… it’s worth and moral valence are determined by the curriculum.

    • I felt I did acknowledge the moral dimension and the “implicit” moral ends. I see a moral purpose to education; a moral influence from educational institutions, and a moral case for education. It is morality as a curriculm aim that I have problems with.

      (Social engineering I will be dealing with later.)

      I’m also not at all sure where “instilling tolerance” came from. I think that tolerance can sometimes be used as an excuse for refusing to talk about responsibility, so, at least in some senses, can be the problem.

  2. If you read many primary school prospectuses you will be hard pressed to find amongst the schmalzy ‘whole development of the child’ stuff references to anything specific about academic development. Even when you go beyond the school’s general aims to the curriculum sections, there are only vague references to fulfilling potential and then a proud stance on independent learning. What parents really want to read is that reading, writing and mathematics are taught well, thoroughly, with a skeleton illustration of the school’s approach to them. Instead it’s a load of waffle, identical to most other primary school websites. It’s almost as they have been made to feel ashamed of having any real academic aspirations in case it doesn’t please the PC crowd at the LEA.

  3. “It’s almost as they have been made to feel ashamed of having any real academic aspirations in case it doesn’t please the PC crowd at the LEA.”

    That’s because the PC crowd at the LEA is riddled with self-serving, self-congratulatory muppets who’ve swallowed the entire relativist almanac. You may doubt this but when I trained, we were actually advised to make sure that at any interview we had to mention (as often as possible) that we, variously, saw ourselves as ‘facilitators’..were ‘non-judgemental’ and naturally that we were ‘child-centred in our approach.

    I was taken aside and spoken to by a very concerned, nice woman when I rejected all these as either meaningless or ridiculous. Now prior to teaching, I’d been a brick-layer and local convener for UCATT and what seemed to appal them was that I was still espousing old-style ‘universalist’ left-wing views. She was totally at a loss.

    I’m sure she’d had the same conversations before, only with socially conservative types who were stuck in a sort of 1950s / ‘Muffin the Mule’ / deferential mindset. The one thing that these people can’t abide is criticism from the left…I think I’d ended telling her she was bourgeois liberal useful idiot or some such. She ended up suggesting that I was either mentally disturbed or a moron who simply hadn’t understood what she’d told me.

    She literally couldn’t conceive that anybody (especially anyone who claimed any left-wing credentials) could regard her as anything but a sort of secular saint who spent her time ‘facilitating’ a fairer, more just and more cohesive society. When I suggested that her attitudes tended to condemn working-class kids to a second rate, moronic curriculum… totally unfit for purpose and was thereby reinforcing division and denying social mobility, she told me I clearly hadn’t understood a word she’d said. She then started all over again. I walked out. She informed my tutor (who was moderately more sensible) that I was mad. I was nearly kicked off the course.

    The strange this is..an honest Tory would probably have agreed…I’ve said it a million times…it’s the liberals..and the relativists…they’re the problem…turned education into a barrier to social advancement. USEFUL FRIGGIN IDIOTS..every one.

  4. “I’m also not at all sure where “instilling tolerance” came from.I think that tolerance can sometimes be used as an excuse for refusing to talk about responsibility, so, at least in some senses, can be the problem.”

    Possibly from confusion over the various contemporary senses of ‘tolerance’. Personally I regard tolerance as an openness to ideas and an aversion to dogmatism. However,there is a sense of tolerance…largely within relativist circles…which adds a connotation of ‘respect’. This, I feel, comes from a notion that all cultures, creeds and belief systems operate under a sort of zero-sum rule of moral worth, whereby any perceived failing in a particular culture, class or set of behaviours is offset or mitigated by increased worth in other (less objectively obvious) areas or explained away by other circumstances. As a result, since nobody is ever recognised as any way intrinsically superior in terms of behaviour or achievement, all are due respect from everybody else…it’s mind-blowing.

    This is largely the point of my first post and the failure of many liberal educationalists to pay sufficient regard to definite, concrete outcomes. These have been sacrificed to the fetishisation of process. I’ve come across plenty of kids (often very pleasant and personable) who’ve been built up to such an extent on the way to achieving a couple of BTECs, praised to the skies for their attitude and compliance who I’m sure got the shock of their lives when the ROA, replete with the certificates for taking their coats off every morning, failed to land them anything more rewarding than a shelf-stacking gig. Much as I might like them on a personal level, and much as I might admire their attitude…somebody should have told them “actually mate…that certificate isn’t worth the paper it’s written on”…but..y’know…deep down it’s all about self-esteem (apparently)…and qualifications are all a bit ‘elitist’ really…as I was once told by a woman from the LEA whose kids went private and had hopes of Oxbridge.

  5. The number of VCs and/or GCs won by former pupils is considered the greatest achievement of all by public schools. The VC and GC holders are used to inspire pupils which surely is a form of character development, namely that of courage and selflessness. Public schools also tend to encourage pupils taking responsibility for themselves and others, using one’s initiative; being a team player/not letting the side down( house competitions are often more keenly played than school ones); determination, being a good loser; being able to rub along with those one lives with; accepting criticism( often severe at publi school) standing one one’s feet and standing one’s ground( cannot run home to Mum at the end of the day; if one is a boarder). Therefore Public Schools intentionally develop character: one can argue that they do not develop moral virtues but certainy a degree of confidence, self sufficiency, a greater capacity to adapt to different circumstances, a certain mental resilience(especially if one has boarded from a young age). If the social inequalities are to be reduced, then it is important that those from comprehensives schools have the confidence and level of initiative to apply to the top universities and professions in order to compete with those from public schools. The problem is that since the late 70s and early 80s public schools have realise how competitive the World has become and that they can only justify their fees if they deliver the results. Plenty of public schools have gone bust over the last 20 yrs because their results did not justify their fees. As they say in boxing ” Train hard, fight easy”: education is just the training for one’s wage earning life. Monkeyfish and serious Teacher – well said. The reality is that far more public schools realise how the World is run because their pupils run and own large parts of it, when compared to comprehensive schools.

  6. […] Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #1: Developing Character […]

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