Cartoon Character: why we can never teach virtues directly

Charles Atlas, in the old comic-book adverts for body-building, promised to turn omega-males into Heroes of the Beach, if the applicant would only gamble a stamp. Now I see that attention turns- as it often does- not to the physical instruction of children, but to moral development, and the interior space of children's character. A Character and Resilience summit to be held on the 6th of February,will ask the question, 'Can we assist social mobility through the use of teaching children to have better character?':

'We believe Britain needs a 'national conversation' on the role that focusing on character and resilience could play in narrowing the attainment gap.  In February, we are hosting a 'summit' on this subject, which we hope can help stimulate discussion among key practitioners, commentators and opinion formers. Our ultimate aim is to help stimulate new practical solutions or highlight and help the spread of proven existing ones.'

Things like this happen all the time. Right now, somewhere, an educational conference is taking place; Powerpoints are being dutifully read from like homilies, and delegates are, Googling Dignitas. This conference is different: hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, it plans to discuss the role of character in obtaining this (I presume they mean upward mobility; these things never really specify. Can everyone go up? Does anyone have to come down? Presumably we'll deal with that when and if we ever get there).

My experience of summits and conferences is that they are rarely discussions; they infrequently start with open minds and end up with coherent answers. The tone and direction is chosen by the guest list, and their topics, which are chosen by the event organisers. Still.

This might not be the right Tony. Actually...
This Telegraph story on the summit tickled a few epiglottises this morning, possibly because it led with a Guardian-baiting picture of Eton College's Big Cheese, Tony Little, and the fact that he would be addressing the summit. Mention Eton to some people in education and it's like you've just said their post-hypnotic kill-trigger.

There is a germ of validity to some of the responses: it isn't unreasonable to argue that, while qualities such a resilience and leadership are fine things to possess, they are potentially more easily obtained in social circumstances that aren't predicated on want and economic despair. I've worked with children of the homeless, as well as kids whose family pets were Black Swans, and the biggest difference I've noticed is in the assumptions they make about themselves and the world. The comfortable see themselves as having every right to succeed, whereas Les Miserables see themselves as outsiders at a locked gate. 

Children possessed of fortitude and ambition can succeed in almost any circumstances. It is one of the greatest miracles and marvels of the human story. But character is impossible to evaluate without context. The same depth of endurance in two children from opposite poles of want can lead to a charmed life for one and perdition for the other. Some children's lives require only a pinch of perspicacity to master; others need the whole sack. Failure is more easily learned from in circumstances where it doesn't spell the water being cut off, or the food running out. Which isn't to deride the achievements of children who had the bad manners to be born from parents in the upper tax bracket. Snobbery and prejudice, I have noticed, flows both ways in this debate, and it's a nasty sight from any angle. 

'Don't make me Force-Choke you.' 'YES LORD VADER.'
But really, this story isn't 'Masters of the Universe lecture Hoi Polloi on how to take an endless deluge of shit'. It's about the role of developing character in schools, as a means of promoting social mobility. It sounds reasonable, but it's an enormous red herring. 

1. Character cannot be taught directly. It cannot be distilled in a predictable and regular way. This is because the intended recipients of its instruction are what I like to call 'human beings'. We resist reduction. 

2. It can be taught indirectly, but this is still a roulette wheel of uncertainty. Treat a child cruelly and you might expect cruelty to propagate in their soul. But you might obtain a coward; a hero; a saint. We're as much ghost as gyroscope, whether you favour the flavour of incense or solder.   

3. Which character should be taught? What virtues should be chosen? Aristotle and Plato had a few things to say about this, so I direct the good members of the summit to their latest podcasts. I will only say that the virtues of Sparta are not the virtues of Athens, or indeed, Rugby.

4. Do teachers have good character? Can we be relied upon to be the paragons of character that children should emulate? Let's think carefully before we answer that...

5. How do you assess it? How do you know if the program's going well?

6. How do we train teachers to teach good character?

This boat has many holes. The only way I even remotely attempt character formation in my classes is by attempting to modify their behaviour; I inculcate (or attempt to) good habits of work. I encourage, and expect hard work. I succour them when they stumble. I encourage them to fail, then try again. I show them I value their work if they have tried hard. I reassure. I remind. I often challenge and criticise, especially if they have done anything less than their best. I praise, praise, praise. And I do this simultaneous to the teaching of my subject, and let the content be the medium.

But I never know if it will take inside them in any way. I'm a teacher. We have enough with which to contend without being tasked with the scaffolding of their souls. I barely have enough time to phone parents and mark books. Clubs, games, social activities....these are all excellent things for schools to promote, and I'm sure, aid in the development of children. But to aim at this goal as if it were something tangible, is an invitation to waste money and time in schools that could be more profitably used teaching children.

If you care about social mobility- and I am- the best levers we can give children are the best education we can possibly manage, and the methods by which such an education is obtained. Everything else, we can only hope for. Everything else belongs to them. 

Gamble someone else's stamp.     


  1. Great article, very measured words. The idea of ofsted (or even worse, SMT in an internal inspection) wanting to see me "develop character" in a lesson is a horrifying prospect. Completely ridiculous and inevitably damaging. Human personalities are so varied and complex that you simply can't start to structure, measure or quantify this stuff.

    What teachers do need to help them develop the character of pupils is time and freedom though. Teachers under immense pressure to have four part lesson plans (and the constant threat of the head wandering in on a learning walk to check that those four parts are present), with endless paperwork and a huge amount of curriculum time to cover are much less likely to have time to get to know their pupils, to just spend 10 minutes in a lesson talking to them about music, sport, or what they think of the news. I'm sure everyone will remember a moment where a teacher at school just sat and chatted to them, and they found themselves surprisingly talking to a human being they quite liked and who was actually interested in their opinions. I know as a school pupil I liked nothing better to be talked to by an adult as if I was another adult - it did wonders for my confidence.

  2. One politician's "character" is another's "citizenship."

  3. Tom how, speaking as honestly as you do, manage to keep your job? I can't imagine that you haven't been retaliated against at some point for telling the truth about levelling, invertebrate administrators, and the like.

    How do manage to not get chewed up by the educational machine?


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