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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.

Could there be a ‘skeptical ecstasy’?

We all love a bit of ecstasy, don’t we? Not the drug (though that’s a form of ecstatic experience) but, more broadly, those moments of expansion, elation and awe we sometimes feel, when our heart-strings seem to vibrate in harmony with the universe,  when the vast, black and empty cosmos seems suddenly to radiate with love. We’re all into that, yeah?

The ecstasy of Father Jean Birelle, from the Louvre

If, like me, you’re a bit of a mystic hippy, you might attribute such ecstatic moments to God, and interpret them as a connection to the divine. Making a ‘divine attribution’ adds to the experience. You may feel ‘God loves me!’, you may feel profoundly accepted and forgiven, you may take your feelings as proof of His special favour.

This is where it get tricky. The certainty that usually accompanies ecstasy can lead to various nasty side-effects for you and for your society.

People in the grip of ecstasy are often convinced that the world had radically changed, normal rules no longer apply, that they are in a new Age of Love. They may abandon their jobs and families, dance naked in the streets like the Ranters of the English Civil War or the Ravers of the Summer of Love. And it’s what Californians call ‘a major buzz-killer’ when they calm down and realize the Age of Love hasn’t arrived, and, in the words of Steely Dan, ‘all those day glo freaks who used to paint their face, they’ve joined the human race’.

Again and again, collective outpourings of ecstasy have ended in orgies of scapegoating, as Cohn’s book explores

It gets more dangerous when the ecstatic hordes decide that a particular individual or group stands in the way of the Age of Love, and therefore they must be banished or executed. Again and again, throughout history, moments of collective ecstasy have degenerated into bloody orgies of scapegoating. Ecstasy often leads to a supercharged version of the ‘Us versus Them’ mentality. A group feels mystically fused together, and then refuses to tolerate bystanders or outsiders. It’s like a homicidal version of the Hokey Cokey: either join the dance, or die.

The Enlightenment was built, after centuries of religious violence, on the basis that religious ecstasy is dangerous and we need to contain it, marginalize it, even pathologise it as ‘enthusiasm’. As philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith recognised, ecstasy is a threat to reason, tolerance, industry and public order. We need to lock it up.

And yet, like King Pentheus trying to lock up Dionysus, somehow ecstasy always escapes. Over the last three hundred years, there have been various ecstatic resistance movements, from Methodism to Pentecostalism, from rock and rave to football hooliganism and fascism (as Bernard Knox pointed out, one of the Homeric words for fighting, charmê, comes from the same root as the word chairô—‘rejoice’.). Considering the global rise of neo-Pentecostalism today, ecstasy does not seem to be going anywhere. The Enlightenment’s War on Ecstasy has failed.

So here’s my question: could there be a skeptical ecstasy? Could we rehabilitate ecstatic experiences, and somehow de-toxify them of their tendency to fanaticism and scapegoating?

Richard Holloway’s liberal evangelism

This brings me to Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, which came out last year, and which is that rare thing – a book about Christianity that actually sold well in the UK. Its success is not surprising, as Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, has quite a tale to tell – from failed monk to horny missionary in Africa, from socialist priest in the slums of the Gorbals, to his time ministering among the dying during the AIDS epidemic. Finally, fatally, Holloway is made a bishop, and he has a serious run in with the evangelical wing of the Anglican communion.

The crisis comes at the Lambeth conference of 1998, where a ‘pincer movement’ of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics vote that homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Scripture’. Holloway is disgusted by the homophobic hatred and bile expressed by the evangelicals, and offended by their utter certainty that they know God’s opinion on matters of sexuality and gender.

His stance in solidarity with the marginalized is admirable, but rather than trying to defend it with reference to Scripture (the gospels, say), as would befit a bishop, he brings out a book called Godless Morality the year after the conference, suggesting that we leave God out of public discussions of morality. The idea of God, he comes to believe, simply muddies the waters of civil debate. Who knows what God thinks anyway? Archbishop Carey denounces the book, and Holloway’s own congregation vote him out. This offends Holloway but really, what did he expect – if God should be left out of public discourse, then what’s the point of bishops?

He ends the book in a mood of weepy elegy, declaring that Christianity is ‘on its last legs’, that the Anglican communion is ‘unraveling’, that God probably doesn’t exist, and religions deserve no more respect or obedience than other artistic creations like, say, the works of Proust or Nietzsche (who he quotes repeatedly). He admits that evangelical churches may be growing, but that’s only because they peddle easy answers – not like Richard, the heroic skeptic. He briefly wonders if there could ever be a ‘liberal evangelism’, one not so sure of itself, one less keen to pronounce and condemn, open to the possibility it’s wrong.

I think there could be a liberal evangelism – a form of spirituality that is open to ecstatic experience but also socially inclusive, non-homophobic, and humble as to its own truth-claims. But it would need to have a little more faith than the thin gruel offered us by Holloway. Never mind God, he doesn’t even believe in free will. The central assertion of his memoir is that we can’t choose our path in life, nor improve our characters through practice – instead, time reveals to us who we essentially and immutably are. Time reveals that Holloway is an uncertain and vain man, and it couldn’t have been any other way. I find this sort of genetic fatalism depressing and, in Holloway’s case, self-serving. If there is one thing I like about Christianity, it’s the belief in second chances and the possibility of liberation from sin and suffering. Give me that over Holloway’s genetic fatalism any day.

Towards a skeptical ecstasy

So what would a ‘skeptical ecstasy’ look like? Let me attempt an answer:

1) People want and need channels for ecstatic experience. They give our lives meaning and colour, they free us from boredom, and they make us feel less separate from other people and from God and / or Nature.

2)  We need to be careful in our search for ecstasy, and aware that it’s not an unmitigated good, that it can harm ourselves and others.

3)  There are better and worse channels for ecstasy – anti-social channels which direct us towards self-destruction or violence against outsiders, and pro-social channels which direct us towards compassion and love. There is ecstasy which seeks to police borders (we’re in and you’re out) and ecstasy which knocks down borders (we’re different but at a deeper level we’re the same).

4) Having ecstatic experiences doesn’t make you special or unique. Everyone feels ecstatic sometimes. What counts is what it leads to. Many artists have felt divinely inspired, for example, but few of them have actually turned that inspiration into good art. Likewise, many spiritual seekers have had ecstatic experiences, but not all of them have built genuinely good lives. Ecstatic inspiration is not enough, it needs to be supported by beliefs, learning and daily practices.

5) Don’t think you’re better or holier than other people because you have moments of ecstasy. You may simply have a more emotional temperament. Likewise, don’t think you’re less spiritual because you don’t have such experiences. There are many ways to lead a good life – sobbing, babbling, passing out and waving your hands in the air are fun but not essential.

6) Don’t be too sure you know what God wants. Test your intuitions. Be open to the possibility you’re wrong. Have a flexible, experimental and open-minded attitude to your ecstatic experiences. It’s OK not to have all the answers.

7) Ecstatic experiences don’t give your arguments special status in the public square. You need to give reasons for your arguments, and expect to defend them rationally. Bodily sensations are not an argument.

8) Above all, we need to watch out for the tendency to scapegoat in ourselves. We need to watch for the tendency to project our shadows onto others, to blame outsiders for our own divided and unhappy natures. That demon is within us all, and ecstasy often lets him out. Jesus warned again and again, don’t judge others, don’t point the finger, love your enemies, love those different to you, love those who society looks down on, cross the road to help them. If your ecstasy isn’t serving that end, then it’s just a self-congratulatory feeling.

St Paul, writing to a young church that was fixated on speaking in tongues and other ecstatic phenomena, put it well:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.


In other news:

I’ve been on holiday so don’t have much extra reading for you, but here’s a handful:

A friend introduced me to the work of Daniel Mendelsohn, a classicist and critic for the NYRB. Here’s his wonderfully scathing critique of the film ‘Troy’.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. The BBC brought together some people to reflect on its impact.

The Papacy is considering making GK Chesterton a saint. The Spectator lays out the arguments against canonisation.

Here’s a WSJ piece on Philip Zimbardo’s ‘time perspective therapy’.

Here’s an FT piece about the Sunday Assembly, or ‘church of no religion’ – which is what people used to call Esalen, the California New Age commune, by the way.

Finally, I’m sorry to hear of the passing of Seamus Heaney, the last poet whose work meant something to millions of Irish and British people. Here he is on Desert Island Discs.

See you next week,


PS I used a photo by a photographer, Simon Barber, without his permission. He got in touch, and very kindly let me off paying once I’d removed the image. Thanks for the reprieve Simon – check out his work here.