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Education policy

Seven Truths about character education

This year I got some funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to teach a course in practical philosophy with three partner organizations – Manor Gardens, a mental health charity in North London; Low Moss prison in Glasgow; and Saracens rugby club.

The courses teach practical ideas from various wisdom traditions, and how they’ve inspired techniques in modern psychotherapy. The first half of each session is me teaching the ideas, then in the second half the group discusses a particular ethical question, such as ‘what does flourishing really mean?’, and they share their own ideas and experience.

The aim is to help people cope with adversity and move towards their conception of flourishing. It’s also to introduce people to the ‘Great Conversation’ of philosophy (and culture more broadly) and make them feel at ease in that particular party.

Saracens centre Nils Mordt, catching up on some ancient philosophy

This week, I ran a session at Saracens, where the players discussed whether arrogance or humility is a better virtue in professional sports and life in general. We discussed various figures, from Lao Tse to Paul Scholes. It was enjoyable and, I hope, useful.

I’m also working with a colleague at York University to try and get some practical philosophy into Religious Education in schools, and with others to try and get it into higher education, to help undergrads and PhDs cope with the emotional demands of academic life.

All of this work is based on the uncertain premise that wisdom can be taught.

That assumption sprang into the news this week, when both the Liberal Democrats and Labour came out in support of character education in schools.

First the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility published a ‘character and resilience manifesto‘ calling for the introduction of lessons in character skills and even a ‘character certificate’ for each pupil. The report, written by Jen Lexmond of the consultancy Character Counts, draws on the work of American economist James Heckman, who found that interventions in the first five years of a child’s life can help them acquire character skills like perseverance, self-control and attention.

Tristram Hunt: resilience is all about bouncing back

The next day, Labour’s shadow education minister, Tristram Hunt, called in a speech at an education conference for “all schools to see instilling character among their pupils as part of their educational ethos.” He also referred to Heckman’s work, as well as the work of the Jubilee Centre for Values and Character at Birmingham University.

Perhaps, the RSA’s Matthew Taylor wondered, this week would come to be seen as a ‘tipping point’ for the character education movement. However, there are still plenty of skeptics. Toby Young, the journalist and free school founder, suggested that ‘all the evidence suggests it’s a waste of time’. The columnist Gaby Hinsliff worried that it was being treated as a magic bullet that let policy makers ignore the real issue of poverty. Author Ian Leslie likewise dismissed the project, telling me: “I don’t think teachers should be charged with imparting wisdom. They should be charged with ensuring kids learn stuff, so that they can fully participate in and benefit from culture.”

Ethics in a post-religious society

The problem we are grappling with, as I see it, is this: how to teach ethics in a post-religious and multicultural society, in a culture of consumerism, ubiquitous digital media and widening inequality, a culture where the ruling value appears to be individualism and personal freedom.

We are extremely wary of the sort of collective moral restraints over personal choice which religious societies accept. Yet our post-religious culture presents deep structural challenges to the development of character – the decline of the two-parent family, for example; or the huge cultural impact of a free market media which makes more money from outrage and titillation than ethical reflection.

Policy makers have seized on ‘character skills’ because they seem to side-step our liberal dislike of moral preaching. They’re skills, not values, and they’re evidence-based. So it’s not dogma, it’s science. And everyone loves science, don’t they? Character skills in this sense are the modern descendant of Auguste Comte’s vision of a ‘positivist religion’ to replace the Abrahamic faiths.

The only problem is the evidence isn’t that great. New Labour introduced a subject called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning in 2002, only to find out a decade later it had little effect on either children’s well-being or academic success. In 2008, a resilience programme designed by Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman was tried out in several regions. Again, not much impact.

So why bother? Perhaps we should give up trying to teach these soft or ‘non-cognitive’ skills as a well-intentioned but ultimately pointless or even harmful distraction, and focus on teaching children knowledge and cultural literacy. Besides, says Toby Young, most of our character and IQ is genetically determined. If you’re smart, rich and happy, you’ve won the genetic lottery. If not, sucks to be you.

A brief proposal

Let me make a brief case for my ‘practical philosophy’ version of character education, in seven truths:

1) All of us face suffering and adversity at some point in our lives. Religion, philosophy and culture provide us with resources to cope with suffering, find meaning and move towards our conception of flourishing.

2) Some of the wisdom from religious traditions has in the last 30 years been turned into evidence-based therapeutic techniques, such as mindfulness (from Buddhism) and CBT (from ancient Greek philosophy). There is a lot evidence that these therapeutic techniques do help many people through difficult moments of their lives. That’s why people have turned to them century after century.

3) It is useful to learn about these skills / techniques, and also to learn about the ethical traditions that they come from. By connecting the techniques to their cultural context, learners are brought into the Great Conversation and given valuable cultural literacy about, say, Greek philosophy or the Renaissance or the great wisdom traditions of China and India. This is more interesting and inspiring for them than simply force-feeding them techniques in the instrumentalized and culturally sterile language of psychology.

Join the Great Conversation

4) It is also good to create spaces for open ethical discussions about what it means to have a good character, or career, or relationship – in other words, not just means but ends. Such discussions get learners engaged and make them feel part of the Great Conversation. On their own, such Socratic discussions can lead nowhere (they don’t teach us the wisdom of previous generations). But they are useful in partnership with the teaching of wisdom, because they give people the space to disagree and to find the wisdom which works for them.  If I was sent on a character course and given no space for discussion or disagreement, I’d find it illiberal and patronizing, and would resist it. As John Stuart Mill realized and Martha Nussbaum recently reiterated, you need a balance between the teaching of wisdom traditions and the freedom to find your own path. This is especially true for teenagers and young adults.

5) Ethical discussions help people practice moral reasoning, or what Aristotle called phronesis. This is exactly what the Positivist approach to character skills lacks – it tries to drill people in instrumental techniques rather than getting them to think critically about which values are appropriate in which situations, and which goals we should be striving for. And perhaps most importantly, group discussions let people teach each other and be vulnerable with each other. Sounds sappy but it’s powerful, particularly with tough young men like rugby players or prisoners.

6) As children of the Enlightenment, we have a wariness of people teaching wisdom / character because we have a keen sense that moral preachers are often hypocrites. Gaby Hinsliff points out that the headmaster of one academy where pupils chant ‘character before knowledge’ each morning has just been arrested for fraud. None of us are necessarily moral beacons (I’m certainly not) but we can still explore wisdom traditions as long as we’re open about our own imperfections. One of the things I admire about the Christian tradition is this recognition of our fallibility.

7) The teaching of wisdom or character should never be an excuse for failing to tackle the structural causes of suffering, nor should it be a means for the affluent to congratulate themselves while blaming the poor for their weakness. At its best, it should give the disadvantaged the resilience to stand up to social injustice. Such was the insight of Martin Luther King, the champion of ‘creative maladjustment’, who also said the aim of education should be ‘intelligence plus character’.

I’d suggest calling this subject something like practical philosophy or the Good Life. Perhaps the best place to teach it is in the statutory hour of RE which each school is meant to teach each week (although fewer and fewer do). Or it could be done in an after-class course (some schools already do this). It may be a good way to teach ethics in a post-religious society  – introducing young people to the great wisdom traditions, teaching some of the techniques or ‘spiritual exercises’ which these traditions developed, and creating spaces for them to discuss, apply, and disagree.

I hope I’m not just peddling my own course…OK, I am a little bit, but really, this isn’t ‘my’ course, this is our culture. We shouldn’t be afraid to teach it.

Getting practical philosophy into the classroom

I would love there to be more practical philosophy in schools. At the moment, the teaching of ethics and philosophy in schools and universities is almost entirely theoretical. Students learn that philosophy is a matter of understanding and disputing concepts and theories, something that only involves the intellect, not your emotions, actions or life outside of the classroom.

This is a consequence of the splitting off of psychology from philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century. Philosophy lost touch with the central and immensely practical question of how to live well, and that ethical vacuum was filled by psychology, and even more by pharmacology.

Ironically, the most evidence-based talking therapy – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – was directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, and uses many of its ideas and techniques. CBT picked up the baton which modern philosophy dropped, of trying to help ordinary people live happier lives. But it lacks the ethics, values and meaning dimension that ancient philosophy had.

Philosophy and psychology need each other. Philosophy without psychology is a brain in a vat, artificially cut off from emotions and actions and the habits of life. Psychology without ethics is a chicken without a head, focused entirely on evidence without any clear sense of the goal. Practical philosophy is a bridge between the evidence-based techniques of psychology, and the Socratic questioning of philosophy.

I wish that, when I was suffering from social anxiety and depression at school, someone had told me about Stoic philosophy, and explained their idea that my emotions are connected to my beliefs and attitudes, and we can transform our feelings by changing our beliefs. They might also have explained how CBT picked up the Stoics’ ideas and tested them out. Instead I had to find all this out for myself, and it took me several rather unhappy years. When I did finally come across ancient philosophy, it helped me enormously.

And I’m not alone in this. John Lloyd, the creator of Blackadder and QI, was a very bright boy at school, but never learned to reflect on the good life or how his thoughts create his subjective reality. He had to learn that himself, coming to philosophy after a five-year breakdown in his thirties. He now says: ‘I think every child should learn Stoic philosophy.’  Making Stoicism part of the national curriculum is quite a big ask. But wouldn’t it be great if there was at least some practical philosophy, some indication that philosophy can practically improve students’ lives?

Eight Key Ideas To Get Across

Stoicism for Everyday Life is a project bringing together philosophers, psychotherapists and classicists, who are fascinated by the links between Stoic philosophy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and committed to raising public awareness of Stoicism as a life-improving resource. We’re organising Live Like A Stoic Week (Nov 25 – Dec 1), and trying to get people involved in Stoic events all over the world. We’re preparing a handbook for Stoic Week, with a different Stoic idea and exercise for every day, and we’re inviting people to follow the Handbook for the week, then reporting back to us via a brief questionnaire. It will be released in November.

We’d love it if students at schools and universities got involved too. Last year, several schools around the world got involved for the Week, and some undergrads posted YouTube videos describing how they found the practical exercises. If you’re a teacher, and you want to do a class or philosophy club on Stoicism, here are eight key ideas that, speaking personally, I wish I’d come across at school:

1) It’s not events that cause us suffering, but our opinion about events.

Epictetus

People often think ‘Stoic’ means ‘suppressing your emotions behind a stiff upper lip’. This is not what ancient Stoicism meant. The Stoics thought we could transform emotions by understanding how they’re connected to our beliefs and attitudes. The quote above, from the philosopher Epictetus, is so powerful and useful – and it was the main inspiration for CBT. Often what causes us suffering is not a particular adverse event, but our opinion about it. We can make a difficult situation much worse by the attitude we bring to it. This doesn’t mean relentlessly ‘thinking positively’ – it simply means being more mindful of how our attitudes and beliefs create our emotional reality. We don’t realise that often we are the ones causing ourselves suffering through our thoughts. Have you noticed how people react very differently to exactly the same event, how some sink rapidly into despondency while others shrug it off? Perhaps we can learn to be more resilient and intelligent in how we react to events.

2) Our opinions are often unconscious, but we can bring them to consciousness by asking ourselves questions

Socrates said we sleepwalk through life, unaware of how we live and never asking ourselves if our opinions about life are correct or wise. CBT, likewise, suggests we have many cognitive biases – many of our deepest beliefs about ourselves and the world might be destructive and wrong. Yet we assume automatically they’re true. The way to bring unconscious beliefs into consciousness is simply to ask yourself questions. Why am I feeling this strong emotional reaction? What interpretation or belief is leading to it? Is that belief definitely true? Where is the evidence for it? We can get into the practice of asking ourselves questions and examining our automatic interpretations. The Stoics used journals to keep track of their automatic responses and to examine them. CBT uses a similar technique. Maybe your students could keep a Stoic journal for a week.

3) We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we react

This is another very simple and powerful idea from the Stoics, best presented by Epictetus, the slave-philosopher, who divided all human experience into two domains: things we control, things we don’t. We don’t control other people, the weather, the economy, our bodies and health, our reputation, or things in the past and future. We can influence these things, but not entirely control them. The only thing we have complete control over is our beliefs – if we choose to exercise this control. But we often try to exert complete control over something external, and then feel insecure and angry when we fail. Or we fail to take responsibility for our own thoughts and beliefs, and use the outside world as an alibi. Focusing on what you control is a powerful way to reduce anxiety and assert autonomy in chaotic situations – you could use the stories of Rhonda Cornum, Viktor Frankel, James Stockdale or Sam Sullivan to illustrate this idea – they all faced profound adversity but managed to find a sense of autonomy in their response to it. The Serenity Prayer is also a nice encapsulation of this idea.

4) Choosing your perspective wisely

Every moment of the day, we can choose the perspective we take on life, like a film-director choosing the angle of a shot. What are you going to focus on? What’s your angle on life?

What’s your angle on life?

A lot of the wisdom of Stoicism comes down to choosing your perspective wisely. One of the exercises the Stoics practiced was called the View From Above – if you’re feeling stressed by some niggling annoyances, project your imagination into space and imagine the vastness of the universe. From that cosmic perspective, the annoyance doesn’t seem that important anymore – you’ve made a molehill out of a mountain. Watch this video interview with the astronaut Edgar Mitchell about ‘seeing the Big Picture’. Another technique the Stoics used (along with Buddhists and Epicureans) was bringing their attention back to the present moment, if they felt they were worrying too much about the future or ruminating over the past. Seneca told a friend: ‘What’s the point of dragging up sufferings that are over, of being miserable now because you were miserable then?’

5) The power of habits

One thing the Stoics got, which a lot of modern philosophy (and Religious Studies) misses with its focus on theory, is the importance of practice, training, repetition and, in a word, habits. It doesn’t matter what theory you profess in the classroom if you don’t embody it in your habits of thinking and acting. Because we’re such forgetful creatures, we need to repeat ideas over and over until they become ingrained habits. It might be useful to talk about the Stoic technique of the maxim, how they’d encapsulate their ideas into brief memorisable phrases or proverbs (like ‘Everything in moderation’ or ‘The best revenge is not to be like that’), which they would repeat to themselves when needed. Stoics also carried around little handbooks with some of their favourite maxims in. What sayings do you find inspirational? Where could you put them up to remind yourself of them throughout the day?

6) Fieldwork

Another thing the Stoics got, which modern philosophy often misses, is the idea of fieldwork. One of my favourite quotes from Epictetus is: ‘We might be fluent in the classroom but drag us out into practice and we’re miserably shipwrecked’. Philosophy can’t just be theory, it can’t just be talk, it also has to be askesis, or practice. If you’re trying to improve your temper, practice not losing it. If you’re trying to rely less on comfort eating, practice eating less junk food. Seneca said: ‘The Stoic sees all adversity as training’. I love the bit in Fight Club where students from Tyler Durden’s school get sent out to do homework in the streets (even if the homework is a little, er, inappropriate, like intentionally losing a fight). Imagine if philosophy also gave us street homework, tailor-made for the habits we’re trying to weaken or strengthen, like practicing asking a girl out, or practicing not gossiping about friends, or practicing being kind to someone every day. Imagine if people didn’t think philosophy was ‘just talking’. Diogenes the Cynic took askesis to the extreme of living in a barrel to prove how little we need to be happy – students tend to like stories about him.

7) Virtue is sufficient for happiness

All the previous main points are quite instrumental and value-neutral – that’s why CBT has taken them up and turned them into a scientific therapy. But Stoicism wasn’t just a feel-good therapy, it was an ethics, with a specific definition of the good life: the aim of life for Stoics was living in accordance with virtue. They believed if you found the good life not in externals like wealth or power but in doing the right thing, then you’d always be happy, because doing the right thing is always in your power and never subject to the whims of fortune. A demanding philosophy, and yet also in some ways true – doing the right thing is always in our power. So what are we worried about?

At this point your students might want to consider what they thing is good or bad about this particular definition of the good life. Is it too focused on the inner life? Are there external things we also think are necessary for the good life, such as friends or a free society? Can we live a good life even in those moments when we’re not free, or we don’t have many friends? What do your students think are the most important goods in life?

8) Our ethical obligations to our community

The Stoics pioneered the theory of cosmopolitanism – the idea that we have ethical obligations not just to our friends and family, but to our wider community, and even to the community of humanity. Sometimes our obligations might clash – between our friends and our country, or between our government and our conscience (for example, would we resist the Nazis if we grew up in 1930s Germany?) Do we really have moral obligations to people on the other side of the world? What about other species, or future generations? A useful exercise here, as Martha Nussbaum has suggested, is the Stoic exercise of the ‘widening circles’, imagining all the different wider communities that we’re a part of.

Those are just some ideas I’ve found useful, and which I’ve found people of all ages respond to in workshops (including teenagers). Feel free to suggest other things I’ve missed out in the comments. If you’re a student or teacher who wants to take part in Stoic Week, or who wants to help get more practical philosophy into schools, get in touch.

 

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In other news this week:

This week I got to take part in a fascinating workshop on spirituality, part of Jonathan Rowson’s spirituality project there. One of the participants was Pippa Evans of the Sunday Assembly – the ‘atheist church’ who are in the process of trying to crowd-fund £500,000 to help launch other Sunday Assemblies around the world.

Another cool initiative: Unbound, the crowd-funded publisher set up by John Mitchinson (the other brain behind QI), has raised £1.2 million to expand.

Scary article: Vice magazine on how hackers hack into people’s computer-cameras, video then when they’re…er…indisposed and then blackmail them!

Everyone’s discussing Russell Brand’s call for revolution in the New Statesman. Persuaded? Sounds incredibly half-baked to me, although the problems he addresses are real enough. And I like his support for meditation. I just find his attack on democracy a bit depressing.

Next week I get to be on a panel with Sir Gus O’Donnell! GOD himself. That’s at the launch of the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index. Here’s an article he wrote on improving government, including how to use well-being data more successfully. Talking of which, the ONS published the latest happiness data, showing not much change, and no one paid much attention.

Two philosophers (Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald) got in a bun-fight about whether materialism precludes free will, and what it all means for the appreciation of poetry. I think MacDonald has a point – most poets believe in the Platonic theory of the arts (the idea that the best artists get their inspiration from spirits / God) – so materialism is anti-poetry (though for different reasons than he argues).

Tomorrow I’m off to Gateshead for the Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival, where the theme is ‘Who’s In Control?’ and I’m talking a talk on ecstatic experiences. Looking forward to it.

Have a good weekend – oh, and if you enjoy the blog, I’d welcome donations – it takes up a day a week, and costs me to run the site and newsletter, so if readers could give £1 a month or £10 a year, that’d be great! Alternately, if you want to advertise your company or product and think there’s a good match with my blog, get in touch.

Jules