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Is It All About Character?

 

Around the world educators and philanthropists, for a multiplicity of reasons, seem to be taking a fresh interest in devoting time and resources to what is variously called ‘character development,’ ‘character education’ or ‘positive psychology.’ In the United Kingdom, the wealthy businessman, Sir John Templeton has declared that character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age. A society that is not grounded in deep values, that doesn’t know who are its heroes and which lacks commitment to the common good, is one that is failing. Such we have become.’

 

As a result, millions of dollars are being directed into programs which the proponents think will improve educational attainment and facilitate human flourishing. The Church of England which owns a large percentage of the schools in that country that ordinary students attend, has made character education a fundamental plank in its promotion of what it calls its ‘distinctive education’. According to its CEO, Nigel Genders, the National Board of the Church of England ‘sees the ultimate purpose of education as the promotion of life in all its fullness. Education is about more than just producing increasingly efficient economic units: it is about developing people who can flourish in all areas of their lives.’

 

I wish the Board well but respectfully suggest that unless schools deploy the right resources to ensure that every one of their teachers is a daily model of human flourishing, then even the best programs designed for students will come to nothing. We know only too well how ineffectual religious education has become where it is treated as an add-on. Character education that is not embedded in the fabric of what the school and its faculty are, will achieve no more than a tokenistic moralism.

 

Character education needs to be seen, not so much as the cultivation of each student’s character but as a corporate pursuit. The goal must be for the whole school to become a flourishing community. I would go further and suggest that for a faith-based school in a twenty-first century pluralist, consumerist and individualistic society, it may be better to use the word ‘virtues’ rather than the word values.

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