Of Good Character: Exploration of Virtues and Values in 3-25 Year-Olds, by James Arthur

By Harry Hoare

‘And what did you learn at school today, Jimmy?’
‘How to be a virtuous person.’

It may sound strange, but a growing movement of education experts and policy advisors are advocating moral education as part of the national curriculum. James Arthur’s Of Good Character argues that children need a moral education to make them good characters and virtuous citizens in a modern democracy.

Teaching our children moral lessons may seem like one of the most natural parental instincts: ‘share with your sister’, ‘play fair’, and ‘respect your elders’. These are traditionally principles that parents teach their children at home rather than seeing as the business of school lessons. So, how far can a liberal state go in terms of teaching children how to be good whilst maintaining a commitment to neutrality between competing claims of what ‘the good’ is?

Formal lessons in morality mean that some kind of preferred theory of the good has to be agreed as the state-endorsed moral position. This is anathema to those liberals who believe the state should not favour one set of values over another. There is something disconcertingly Orwellian about allowing the state to decide which values we should inculcate in the sensitive primary-school brains of our offspring. Indeed, Arthur notes it is a ‘challenge’ to socialise children to adopt good character traits whilst maintaining a commitment to autonomy.

Currently, there is no explicit moral education for young people in schools. That does not mean that children are not learning moral lessons though. At school, values are caught rather than taught. Schools socialise children into patterns of behaviour through their ethos and rules. By making children wear a uniform or address teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’, schools teach children lessons about respect and obedience. A moral education is already implicit through school rules and discipline, staff relations and organisation. If schools already shape our children’s morality implicitly then should not we be explicit about it so that the curriculum can be accountable?

Schools cannot help but shape their students in an important sense, and this prevents schools from maintaining neutrality with respect to ethical doctrines. Even a perfect liberal education would inculcate the substantive liberal values of liberty and equality. The tension here is between wanting to change people for the better and maintaining a commitment to a pluralistic liberal society. Where people stand on this issue could well determine how extensive state moral education should be.

If one set of values is imposed by the state, then such action is illiberal and could be criticised as paternalistic. Is the value of creating better citizens worth the lost freedom here? The two languages of individualism and community currently stand at odds with each other. The language of individualism is about independence and freedom in choosing lifestyles; the language of community refers to our social nature. The former has become the more powerful, and Arthur argues that the two should be brought back into balance. The idea that community values are more important than individual liberal values is an idea closely associated with communitarian politics. Such thinking—which has become more influential since New Labour won power in 1997—has ancient roots in the philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle famously claimed man is by nature a social being and that a communal life is essential for full character development.

Arthur represents a modernisation of such views, with an emphasis on the communal over the individual. He claims that schools aim to inculcate those values shared by the majority of people in society. How far can we push this if we want to pay proper consideration to minorities with differing views? For Arthur, teachers should start from the conception of the good life present in society, namely, that the communal takes priority over the individual. This raises two questions: (1) is it the case that people in society believe that the communal does take priority over the individual?; (2) if (1) is true, then how far should we allow the collective moral consensus of society to dictate the moral education of children?

Arthur assumes (1) is true, and his answer to the second question is that schools should teach children to be good in character. Character might seem like an old-fashioned concept, but increasing amounts of attention are being paid to character in modern politics. The leading think-tank Demos recently launched the Character Inquiry project that aims to clarify what people mean by character and where it can inform policy. Character, measured by application, self-regulation, and empathy, is a key determinant of achievement through the course of a person’s life.

Arthur finds that multiple factors affect the character development of young people (in order of influence): the family and parenting, schooling, peers and friends, the community, and the media. Good parenting may well be sufficient to develop the characters of those children with good parents. There are, however, a great number of children who are not getting the right character training at home and teachers could play a crucial role in preventing children who have had a bad start in life, suffering a second setback.

For Arthur, character is ‘an interlocked set of personal values which normally guide conduct. Character is about who we are and who we become, which can result in good or bad conduct.’ If character is about values, then it is important where we get these values from. Surely teaching children good values in school is preferable to law of the jungle in terms of peer pressure and media messages?

Arthur’s further research finding is that young people lack a moral language with which to discuss moral issues. One key ‘urgent’ task is to develop a common ‘post-religious’ moral language (partly because we have difficulty finding effective words in secular society to describe virtue). The traditional language of virtues (justice, wisdom, temperance, courage) is outdated and we need a new language of virtues to give young people the ‘capacity to articulate observations and experiences’. To this end, Arthur recommends moral philosophy should be in the curriculum from age 14 to get students familiar with moral language.

A more qualified and expert workforce has not served to prevent societal breakdown, both in financial and political terms. People now are more dependent on values and virtues in their lives, yet secularisation and community breakdown mean we are less in touch with our moral compasses. This alienation from the source of moral values is most pronounced in young people where a lack of moral education has left them without the resources to build strong characters. The task of supplying young people with these resources should fall primarily on school-years education, which should provide a character education and not simply the means with which to pass exams.

By favouring one set of moral values over all others, the state would make a bold statement about what sort of citizens it wants to produce. School leavers with application, self-regulation, and empathy would be successful in the workplace and would be equipped to function in a modern democracy. Providing the equipment does not determine what individuals have to do with it: some form of character education in school could be a liberal solution to producing better citizens.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/

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