Trump has declared this week National Character Counts Week. I regard this as a less than positive development. When Trump farted out his proclamation that “few things are more important than cultivating strong character in all our citizens”, I immediately tensed up. This is not because I don’t want children to learn to be moral people. It’s because “character education” is code for a system of values that messes people up.
Why is it that this particular meaning of ‘character’ is never employed by people with anything good to say?
When I use the word character, I mean ‘personality’. To say someone has character means they have a sense of humour and endearing idiosyncrasies. There’s the British expression “he’s a bit of a character,” which means “he lives in a hollowed-out tree and subsists by stealing nuts from squirrel nests.”
This is not what conservatives mean by character.
The Christian education system I came through talked about character in a peculiar way. It wasn’t that everybody had a character, and that character could be described as having good or bad qualities (or as being plain good or bad overall). Character was a substance that was always good, and education’s job, apparently, was to pour it into us. People who ‘have’ character have faithful heterosexual marriages, go to bed at 9:30 pm, and eat a high fibre diet. People who ‘lack’ character take heroin at breakfast before robbing a grocery store on their way to get an abortion.
This view of character sees every crime ever committed wholly as a defect of the person who did it. It means we don’t need to look at issues like poverty, abuse, or institutional racism as causes of crime. Everything is down to the individual. The answer is discipline and traditional values. If you hear the phrase “character education”, it’s a strong indicator that you’re talking to a bit of a wanker.
In Britain, the discourse of character is slightly different but not really better. This notion is tightly bound up with ‘stiff upper lip’, which means that if you see all your family and possessions destroyed in a house fire, you don’t cry. I once listened in shock to a boy from the English boarding school Uppingham (notable alumni: Stephen Fry, Charlie from Busted) describing the awful hazing and bullying that went on in the dorms. When someone else voiced the horror I’d been feeling, he laughed it off: “No, it’s good for you. Character building.” I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have coped with what he’d described, and I worried that this made me a deficient human being. Now I realise the deficiency is actually in thinking that this is a desirable, even necessary, part of educating young people.
For a critique of character education, I’m a fan of Alfie Kohn’s article How Not to Teach Values. He digs into the ‘character education’ programmes being promoted in America at the time (1997). The point Kohn makes is that ‘character education’ sounds like it refers to any and all efforts to help children grow into good people, which obviously we all want. In practice, though, the term ‘character education’ is dominated by people with a narrow view of what character is and how we should achieve it. That gave us reason to look critically at character education then, and twenty years later it should give us reason to consider Trump’s announcement of Character Counts Week as less than an unqualified blessing.
I’d summarise the main points of Kohn’s critique of character education programmes thus:
- These programmes are more about obedience than virtue.
- In practice, they’re indoctrination.
- They rely on rewards and punishments to goad students into good behaviour. Research evidence shows that this is counterproductive: it just makes students value the rewards more, and think less of the stuff they’re being bribed to do.
- They assume people do bad things because of bad character, so they don’t address political or socioeconomic factors.
- The programmes are based on the idea of original sin: they assume that people are fundamentally bad.
- The values taught are not to be uncontroversial, shared values. They’re conservative ideology.
What interested me about Kohn’s article was that he spoke only about programmes in mainstream American schools. He never refers to Accelerated Christian Education at all, but I recognised almost everything he said as equally applicable to ACE, the system I learned from. If I say “it’s like conservatives don’t have an original idea in their heads”, someone will accuse me of bigotry against conservatives. Actually, though, that’s the point. This type of education is about trying to make things like they were in the good old days. There are no original ideas because they want to get back to the old ones. A new idea would literally be unconservative. And that’s why this nonsense is almost all a variant on the same tired ideas.
ACE’s advocates really push the character training angle. “Even if you’re not a Christian,” ACE fans have said to me, “you’ve got to be in favour of children being taught to be good, moral people.” It’s taken me a while to realise that I reject entirely this vision of what it is to be a good, moral person.
Character education means respect for authority. It means doing what you’re told enthusiastically and without hesitation. It means submissive, deferent, meek, and humble. And this has screwed me up royally. I’m still getting therapy for this now. I don’t know if I’ll ever consistently be able to set boundaries for myself and enforce them, because I was taught that this was selfishness. I don’t know when I’ll be able to understand clearly, for myself, what I want in any given situation, because I was taught that I should have “no thought for self”. If I ever do manage this, I don’t know how long after that I’ll be able to confidently communicate those desires to other people without feeling that I’m doing something wrong by even mentioning what I want. I was taught to prefer others, you see.
I devoted most of Chapter 12 of my PhD thesis to dismantling ACE’s character education. Don’t let it seep out into real schools.