Let's Play Master and Servant - Character Education

I was recently sounded out about speaking at an event devoted to ‘character education’. The organizers were charm personified, but when it was pointed out that I was decidedly not in favour of such a concept being treated seriously in our education system and I would argue against it, they thanked me for my honesty and discontinued their interest. The following is in no way a slur to those organisers, but it has caused me to articulate the reasons behind such vehemence.

I feel much the same about character education as I do about phrases such as the ‘best that has been thought and written’: that they are correlatives through which a Government whose classism appears naked on even on the cloudiest of days, in even the most dimly lit of all possible back rooms, subtly arranges the chairs so that their moral right, their correctness, the near divinity of their customs and the inevitable justness of their ascendance to the position of rule is bludgeoningly reiterated ad nauseum, (recall here Orwell’s image of a boot stamping on a human face forever). The notion of character itself might be thought a mantra instated in halls for privileged sons as a means instilling that innate sense of superiority that may well come in so useful later in life. The distribution of character is not even, it seems: entirely coincidentally, it appears to land most often in the laps of those who inherit wealth along with it.

I have nothing whatsoever against the teachers in private schools feeding their families. And while I would always argue that for the good of any society such institutions should not exist, or, better still, should be taken under local authority control, I have been sufficiently privileged as an educator to have seen a little of how some of them operate. What always struck me as odd was the realization that the level of liberality in an education appears to increase the more you are able to pay for it. As such, in such institutions the notion of educating the child’s character is perceived to be an (admittedly odd) act of social justice. I have no doubt that the teachers in these institutions are sincere when they say that they are aware that the children they are teaching will likely go on to perform some version of high office, and that it is the responsibility of the institutions borne with the task of growing these children into men and women to ensure that the men and women they turn out are decent and humane. But the education of ‘character’ when it is taken out of those climes becomes profoundly illiberal in intent and comes with the carry-on clanging of connotations of bigotry.

Character, to me, denotes the stiff upper lip, the approved haircut, the tolerance of compulsory misery and a grin and bear it mentality; someone with character hangs on (in desperation); someone with character sheds a tear, blubs a little perhaps when forced to send other men into the slavery of penury; someone with character will take the harsh but necessary decisions, and will feel briefly guilty about those decisions, remote and unaware of the full sum of brutal human misery that such decisions enforce. Someone with character as character stands at the moment is generally immune to what character is.

Real character, let me remind you, is often to be found at the grimier edges of our society. Real character is to be found in the optimistic smile of a child whose mother is a habitual crack user, who meets a lot of her temporary boyfriends and who makes the best of things – who gets up every morning, on an empty stomach to get to a school that punishes him, and still he comes; real character is to be found in the friendly good nature of the Syrian refugee who, recognizing that his family were in mortal danger, walks two thousand miles to Calais or Dunkirk carrying his exhausted children to live in a tent surrounded by mud to only for his entreaties for asylum to be ignored by our characterful Prime Minister who sought power only because it was available and never been denied him; real character is to be found in a disabled child who refuses their teacher’s help as they try and mount the stairs that they were not designed for since the funds for the lift have been cancelled; real character is to be found in the privately shed tears of the aged maths teacher who has given thirty-five years of principled service to a single school and whose thrusting twelve year old bosses think he is long in the tooth and should retire gracefully.

Those who have never known hardship lecturing those who have about the necessity of character is a repulsively ugly manifestation of a patriarchy that chooses to be blind, and, like all elevations of the idea of tradition, a vulgar sop to institutionalized oppression and inequality. The poor would do rather better, don’t you think, if they behaved more like the rich.

To condescend to educate a child’s character, you must make the assumption that they are deficient in it. To condescend to educate a child’s character you must have some form of mission, and that mission will likely have religious overtones and seek in some coded way to make that child submit, bow down, conform, play the role in a play that they have had no part in scripting. To condescend to educate a child’s character you must view the scalpel with which you would excise their rebellious spirit, their questioning nature, their imagination and their political anger as a merciful tool. The problem with education as it stands is that it seeks to open the eyes of the poor; far better that it cuts them out! The boot boy scalpel of character education is merely early practice at the game of master and servant, and guess which one you are?

Added Sun, 21 Feb 2016 21:53

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