I am currently wrestling with a dilemma. I have agreed to contribute to a panel discussion on character education at University College London, and while I generally applaud schools that try to inculcate qualities like perseverance, resilience, the ability to defer gratification, etc, I am not entirely convinced that these virtues can be taught. Should I swallow my scepticism, or gently point out that it’s naive to expect schools to achieve much in this area?
The panel will be discussing an essay in a periodical called Impact in which philosophers write about education policy. This essay by Randall Curren, a professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester, New York, strikes some pleasingly conservative notes. Curren is in favour of teaching British values (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, tolerance) and believes they can be defended both morally and as the most appropriate set of norms for diverse members of a multicultural society to embrace if they want to live peacefully together.
He rightly dismisses the post-modernist objection to teaching these values, namely, that they are rooted in a white, male, heteronormative worldview, and he even goes so far as to endorse the National Citizen Service, a government-funded programme that involves taking teenagers on Outward Bound-style courses. While the NCS now enjoys cross–party support, it was originally championed by David Cameron and has subsequently been taken up by Theresa May. The fact that it sounds like ‘National Service’ means it is treated with much suspicion by the liberal left.
Curren also makes the sensible recommendation that when controversial issues are discussed in schools, disagreements should be moderated by a respect for relevant forms of evidence and scientific expertise. This makes it surprising that he doesn’t deal with the evidence amassed by behavioural geneticists such as Robert Plomin that says character is not something that can easily be taught.