Image: The exploration of human virtues is many centuries old. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is seen carrying his book Ethics in Raphael's famous painting The School of Athens (1509-1510)
What links the global banking crisis, the British MPs' expenses scandal, and the rioting that blighted English cities in August 2011? A 'momentous erosion of character', believes Professor James Arthur, who is championing the fight back as Head of the University's Jubilee Centre for Character and Values.
As riots erupted in English cities in the summer of 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron talked of Britain's 'slow-motion moral collapse'. While politicians debated the underlying causes of the unrest, a growing number voiced the belief it highlighted a lack of traditional democratic virtues such as justice, honesty, courage and compassion.
The University's Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, which opened in May 2012, has at its heart the aim of combating this decline; and contributing to a renewal of character and values in Britain through research, outreach projects, and informing governmental policy and practice. Its goal is to 'promote, build and strengthen character in the contexts of family, school, community, (and) profession...in the interest of human flourishing'. But a vision of this reach and complexity inevitably begs the question of where to start.
'It must begin with virtues taught and lived at home, and parents helping children to understand their importance and meaning,' explains Head of the Centre, Professor James Arthur. 'This is the first step but schools have a crucial role as the second line of defence in upholding these values.'
It must begin with virtues taught and lived at home, and parents helping children to understand their importance and meaning.
Reflecting its purpose of a societal shift, the Centre's interdisciplinary team has three far-reaching flagship projects: Virtues, Values and Decision-Making in Three Professions in the UK in the 21st Century; An Attitude for Gratitude; and Character and Virtue Education in British Schools. These sit above a range of research and development projects already under way, from exploring knightly virtues such as those in Arthurian legends with primary schoolchildren; to fostering community empowerment in Hodge Hill, one of Birmingham's most socio-economically deprived areas.
Kristjan Kristjansson, Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics and the Centre's Deputy Director (Research), explains: 'We aim to make the Centre a major international hub of interdisciplinary research with both theoretical and practical applications. Our motivations are to conduct top-quality research, and make significant differences to the way ordinary people actualise the moral aspects of their lives.'
As well as exploring the place of virtues in the professions of law, medicine and education; the Centre strongly advocates a move back towards character education - teaching in a way to help children develop socially valued traits such as honesty and courage - to ensure values are lived from early childhood.
The teaching of character and values does, however, present issues in that both terms resist a common definition. Who decides which values should form character? And doesn't this differ across religious and cultural divides?
'Our list includes courage, justice, honesty, compassion, self-discipline, gratitude and humility,' explains Professor Arthur, also Head of the School of Education. 'These are human values that transcend one religion, nationality or societal structure.'
But, in 'broken Britain,' can an academic or educative approach realistically work across all of society, including those most disaffected? 'There are undoubtedly questions of poverty or dysfunction, or of social or psychological deprivation, where teachers are left trying to control behaviour rather than nurture any kind of morality or shared virtues,' agrees Professor Arthur. 'But I think most people would agree that the scale of those trials do not mean we do nothing.'
The Centre was made possible as a result of the generosity of the Templeton Foundation. Visit the Jubilee Centre's website for more information.