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.
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.
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.
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.