In her Essay on the Banality of Evil Hannah Arendt wrote that:
The nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.
Now, I’m not meaning to imply that bureaucrats are evil, but looking at this quote, away from its context, is useful for what I wish to say about ‘Character Education’. By trying to make Character Ed a thing that can be taught explicitly, measured, reported on, with data collected and dispersed to all and sundry, it could be said that the very idea of ‘character’ is transmuted from being a collection of difficult to define human traits that might emerge over time, to that of a bureaucrat’s idea of character. They apply, what Theodore Dalrymple calls: ‘a thin veneer of science’ to make character part of the administrative machine: Let’s call something ‘Grit’; let’s define it, measure it, report on it and collect vast amounts of data to show that a child’s ‘grit’ score has increased by 7% over the past year and celebrate this. By doing this we dehumanise the subject.
Character, taken as a whole, can be talked about but in the way that someone might talk about art – what they like about some work and what they don’t, it is through the conversations of people by which we judge ourselves and each other. We change as we respond to our daily habits and our daily tribulations, and how we meet those imposters triumph and defeat, illness and wellness, love and despair, and when we give succour and need it for ourselves. Through all this our character builds, breaks and builds again. Give it a score, a flow chart or a graph and it’s no longer character, it is its opposite – it is the dehumanised picture of what someone with a measuring tape and a calculator thinks character is. It isn’t.
I have long argued that by teaching a rich thought-through curriculum, involving a wealth of experiences and a rich access to the arts and humanities, indeed, a good number of subjects taught by teachers who invest their pupils’ time in the pursuit of wisdom that ‘character’ is developed. Here is a video in which I argue this very thing in a debate at Policy Exchange. So, it was gratifying to read this piece by Paul Tough, author of ‘How Children Succeed’, in which he writes:
No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets; hearing lectures on perseverance doesn’t seem to have much impact on the extent to which young people persevere… there is growing evidence that even in middle and high school, children’s non-cognitive capacities are primarily a reflection of the environments in which they are embedded, including, centrally, their school environment.
Can we make all schools life-affirming and avoid turning them into banal little offices run by petty bureaucrats?