Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Comenius and C.A. Johnson on "Character formation and Character Development"

My dad was headmaster of a Catholic primary school in Luton for more than 25 years. It wasn't an easy job, and there were frequent disagreements with the church hierarchy on the one hand and the local education authority on the other. Within these arguments, fundamental educational principles were wielded like baseball bats by confused-but-powerful priests and bureaucrats as they threw their weight around regarding the running of the school. One incident (I don't know what it was) must have prompted my dad to write this piece about "character formation", and why he opposed it, advocating "character development" instead. I guess one of the priests must have blurted out something like "WE ARE IN THE CHARACTER FORMATION BUSINESS!"

The argument my dad makes is very powerful, and what strikes me is that the issue of "character formation" hasn't  gone away. Sometimes the technologies that we provide for "personal development" around corporate issues of "employability", "competence development", "reflective practice" and the various other fashionable buzz-words contain a vestige of the ethos of "character formation" rather than the  "developmental" goals they might wish to be associated with. I think their message too often is "play the game and you will develop your personal competence/employability...".

I'm grateful to my dad's brother for keeping this and sending it to me. The quote he ends with is by Comenius. The emphasis that Comenius puts on "scientific principals" I think is particularly important. Maybe the biggest challenge we face now is that our confused-but-powerful priests and bureaucrats mistake "having technology" for "having a scientific approach to teaching and learning". Technology risks making us less scientific because as more is automated and bureaucratized, less is amenable to critique. In University, just as much as in the primary school, the science of gentleness, kindness, encouragement and persuasion need to be the order of the day. But gentleness and kindness require a richness of experience that technology alone rarely affords.

Since I did not have the opportunity at the time to explain what I meant by not "being in the character-formation business", I should like to do so now by way of the following notes on the subject. 
There is, first, a distinction be be made between moral and intellectual virtues and character traits. The latter are usually considered to be born of the will, e.g. qualities like perseverance and courage. To attempt to form another person's character thus means that at some stage there will almost inevitably be a conflict of wills in which resistance on one side is countered by increased pressure on the other and ultimately - unless the struggle is given up altogether in the meantime - by the use of force. Now it is true that at one time the use of force was held to be justified where the education of children was concerned. Corporal puishment was normal practice in most schools and it was considered perfectly just and right that one collective will - that of the teaching establishment - should prevail in this way i.e. by force - over another - the childrens'. For various reasons, this is no longer the case. 
No one is likely to dispute the primary importance of character in education. The problem is: whose definition of character is to be used? Hitler in "Mein Kampf" put the "highest value on the training of character" in German schools but a "good character" in that context meant a conforming member of a fascist society, i.e. the imposition of the will of the state upon that of the individual. In our own country, a report from the Board of Education in 1906 began by putting "character" at the head of its list of educational aims but went on to define "character" in terms of obedience, subservience and other virtues demanded of the working-classes by employers. Attitudes have changed since 1906. We no longer live in a society where character can be defined one way - in terms of freedom of will, self-development, etc. - for one group and in quite another - in terms of docility and obedience - for everyone else.  
Perhaps these examples will help to explain why I do not consider myseslf to be in the business of "character formation", quite apart from the fact that even considered quite dispassionately as a programme of action, it doesn't work. Characters are not formed by character-building programmes although it is not unknown for individuals' spirits to be broken by them. Character-development, however, is another matter altogether and one I do believe in. I also consider that the school has a very important part to play in the character-development of the children in its care, but any programme for dealing with it must surely be planned in terms of discussion and reasoned argument, rather than the use of force. This of course would presuppose that the children involved are capable of reasoning at this level. Where they are not - and children at primary school are for the most part just beginning to learn to take others' points of view into account - gentleness, kindness, encouragement and persuasion  are far likelier to have a beneficial effect that the imposition of arbitrary commands and the infliction of punishments. As one educational pioneer has pointed out: "a musician does not strike his lyre a blow with his fist because it produces a discordant sound; but setting to work on scientific principles, he tunes it and gets it into order. Just such a skilful and sympathetic treatment is necessary to instil love of learning into our pupils"


dkernohan said...

This is wonderful. I'm on a whole "history of educational ideas" kick at the moment and this is pitched perfectly.

Never knew your Dad was a headteacher.

Mark William Johnson said...

Well, for once I can say "yes it is!"

I'm not sure what he'd make of me blogging this. I did mention about putting some of his work online when he was alive, but he wasn't so bothered - there are plays, a few articles in various places (Spectator, Sunday Times, Good Housekeeping (!)), cartoons and artwork. But this really strikes a chord for us now.

It may be fortunate that education goes round in circles!