Why does character really matter?

It has become increasingly common of late to highlight the extrinsic benefits of personal character for school achievement. But why is that the case?

We know, for example, that resilient and self-confident students make good learners. Hence, interventions to boost resilience, grit and a positive self-concept are mushrooming in school contexts. Some of those interventions no doubt work.

However, we also have reason to believe that taking cod-liver oil, engaging in vigorous physical exercise or meditating regularly can improve grades. So why should direct efforts at cultivating character take precedence over and above all the other possible remedies?

Further doubts beckon. There is a thin line between grit and sheer obstinacy – not a helpful trait of character. We also know that so-called performance virtues such as resilience and grit are morally neutral. They help sustain the conscientious charity worker and the repeat offender equally well. This is why we have warned against (a) overly narrow specifications of ‘character’ and (b) reductive, instrumentalist views of what the fundamental aims of ‘character education’ are.

True character education needs to nourish the whole child – to help develop the child’s moral, civic and intellectual virtues no less than the performative ones. Moreover, ‘character matters’ not only for good grades but in order that our children ‘may excel in life and not just in exams’, as stated in the sub-title of our poster.

Our view of the nature and salience of character is motivated by the time-honoured ideal of human flourishing as the ultimate aim of education. The flourishing paradigm, which is making a comeback on educational agendas, must not be confounded with a late 20th-century well-being paradigm of the emotionally vulnerable child, which essentially psychologised, therapeutised and instrumentalised student well-being through initiatives such as the self-esteem movement.

In contrast, the flourishing paradigm takes a strength-based approach to well-being; it is about furthering assets that students already possess in nascent forms and helping them continue to develop the character qualities that are intrinsically related to (i.e. constitutive of) flourishing.

A second, but related, observation is that although the flourishing paradigm is typically connected to a focus on the ‘whole child’ – a focus motivated by discontent with the current school system’s one-sided emphasis on grade attainment – education for flourishing is supposed to include traditional subject knowledge and other practical benefits of a well-rounded education. It is not meant to supplant anything (except perhaps the obsession with high-stakes testing), but rather to enhance and add new layers to already existing school practices.

Questions of character seem to be touching a chord with parents, politicians and practitioners, as evidenced, for example, by the rising interest in the work of the Jubilee Centre, both nationally and internationally.

Character education has certainly got the wind in its sails at the moment. That can, however, be a mixed blessing. We need to make sure that any wide-ranging interventions in this field are grounded in a rigorous research paradigm which is philosophically and psychologically credible and educationally feasible. Our work in the Jubilee Centre is aimed at making sure that character education edifies rather than stultifies, and we believe this can only be done by grounding it in robust science and sound academic principles.   

Professor James Arthur, Professor Kristján Kristjánsson, Dr Sandra Cooke, Dr Tom Harrison               

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, School of Education, University of Birmingham

How can we best help our children grow up into responsible, compassionate, moral citizens? Experts at the University of Birmingham are helping to set the national agenda for developing character and virtue in society.

Learn more about our Heroes, teaching character, and why it matters. (linked to) http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/heroes/character-matters.aspx