“Competence without character is unlikely to survive under stress. Know-how without values can be a dangerous thing and qualifications without the quality of self-knowledge ill prepare individuals for modern life.”
—Lord Watson of Richmond
e’ve lost the language of character ever since the 1950s and I think society needs to take responsibility for that loss of language,” claims Professor James Arthur, of Canterbury Christ Church University, in England. He is speaking specifically about conditions in the United Kingdom because he believes that character education, even if somewhat diluted, never died out in the United States. But British society has lost touch with the whole notion—or language—of character formation for half a century. Now Arthur is seeking to remedy that defect.
He began with a modest preliminary project, investigating “The Formation of Virtues & Dispositions in the 16-19 Age Range.” The research comprised in-depth case studies of three Sixth Form centers in a city in southwest England—two schools and a Further Education college. The total sample was 551 students, searchingly probed on their attitudes to virtues and values by means of an 81-item questionnaire and a number of personal interviews.
The findings were not wholly encouraging. On the negative side, students regarded school as the place where they learned to succeed in examinations and teachers as useful if they taught them well. There was little interest in public life and few identified religion as something of importance. Their values came, in order of importance, from mother, peers, father and siblings, but also from role models “not all of whom were admirable,” in Arthur’s words.
The students’ general approach was self-regarding; they lacked a common language to define behavioral ethics and had little knowledge of the tradition of creative reflection that lies behind the moral enterprise. But, more positively, they had a commitment to certain core values which they identified as trust, fairness, caring, and honesty. The evident deficiency was any systematized character formation in their schooling.
Complementing Arthur’s research was another preliminary project, also supported by the Foundation, the “Learning for Life Values Poster Award Programme,” run by David Lorimer of Scientific and Medical Network. This awards program in Scotland grew to an outreach of 100 schools and more than 10,000 pupils. By “blogging” on the website provided, students provided testimonies of how the program had helped them develop, many of which Lorimer has incorporated into a book he has edited, Learning for Life: From Inspiration to Aspiration. This book was launched at the Scottish Parliament, in the presence of the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, on March 27, 2008. Now a primary school version of the awards is planned.
The new, more ambitious, program Arthur has now launched, funded by a £1.4 million ($2.8 million) grant, is “Learning for Life: Strengthening Character in United Kingdom Civil Society.” Uniquely it covers all phases from early years to higher education into employment. Its philosophy is expressed by Lord Watson of Richmond, chair of the Advisory Board, “Competence without character is unlikely to survive under stress. Know-how without values can be a dangerous thing and qualifications without the quality of self-knowledge ill prepare individuals for modern life.”
The program’s aim is to build and strengthen character in the contexts of the family, school, university and employment through national evidence-based research and developmental work delivering character education. Higher education and employers are involved, but it is the schools that are in the front line. “All the schools that we’re involved in have responded very positively,” reports Arthur. “We’ve had no rejections and this is really good news.” The British government, too, is being supportive. Home Office Minister Liam Byrne told Arthur, “This is so significant because nothing like it has happened before. I’m not aware of anyone in academia who has done what you’ve done.”
The new program, whose website is now online, will deploy an experienced team of researchers, educationalists and consultants to research further in this field, roll out a UK-wide competition in character education, and develop teaching materials. It will also form partnerships with other compatible organizations to expand its work and influence decision makers. Conferences and seminars involving such decision makers will be held during the next three years.
Among the big questions that Arthur believes need to be asked are: How can we recover and build up a common language in which to take account of our growing responsibilities? How do we establish a capacity to make personal judgements and test them in experience? Above all, we need to nurture a curiosity about the Good. Most people believe intuitively that there is such a thing, but they have no idea how to embody it. What is more, they need to learn that character education is a lifelong matter.
Arthur describes the typical reaction at one school when he introduced them to the project. “It was almost as if they had been given permission to talk of something which they had been aware of but come to regard as being off the agenda.” In breaking through that inhibition, the project exhibits a distinctly contrarian ethos. It is also likely to engender increasing debate. How does Arthur regard its prospects? “It’s very early days, but I do think in three years’ time, we will be the largest and the best organization for character education in England.”