Is there ‘grit’ in your school shoes?


Written by Stephen. In my post “The Mirror maker” I repeated Primo Levi’s question, asking where in schools do we teach wisdom when humanity clearly possesses the ability to use our exponential increase in knowledge to commit the most terrible atrocities, both on fellow humans and the planet at large.

Is a recent announcement (December 2014) regarding funds for English school programmes from the Department for Education (DfE) about to supply an answer?

 “Schools and organisations that offer activities promoting character in pupils will see these programmes expanded through a new £3.5 million fund, designed to place character education on a par with academic learning for pupils across the country.
Announced as a “milestone in preparing young people more than ever before for life in modern Britain”, the move will see new and existing projects encouraged to develop the virtues in pupils that are vital to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations”.

Links here and here.

Now this character education turns out to be a long list of what might be a rag-tag bag of qualities, namely:

“Applicants should be able to prove their programme develops character traits, attributes and behaviours that underpin success in school and work, including:
    • perseverance, resilience and grit
    • confidence and optimism
    • motivation, drive and ambition
    • neighbourliness and community spirit
    • tolerance and respect
    • honesty, integrity and dignity
    • conscientiousness, curiosity and focus

So there you have it, apparently England aims to become a ‘global leader’ in the field of character education.

Any nod in the direction of broadening the purpose of schools out beyond the narrow regimes of test and exam drilling is to be welcomed.  However, I did think that the kind of qualities/habits/dispositions/virtues listed above might be the ‘bread and butter’ of any self-respecting public institution.  The award might represent a broadening of the debate about the purposes of schools, but I have a few suspicions.  Hopefully, the point of airing them here is to contribute to the debate rather than closing it down.   My suspicions are broadly, both sociological and philosophical.

Sociologically, one starting question – why now?  What does this move represent if anything?  Perhaps the notion of public good has been so hollowed out by a neoliberal hegemony, that one needs reminding about some more cosmopolitan values.  Is there some kind of existential crisis within Western modernity that needs addressing? Is this award a recognition that some changes to the purposes of schools are now required?  Is it a response to the crisis of identity that some young people experience, or a fear that this crisis results in young people leaving family and home to seek sanctuary in some barbaric, medieval creed?  Are the proposals an attempt by the investment state to boost the human capital of its economy through some expanded notion of 21st Century learners?  Is ‘character’ education the answer to all these types of questions?

The second set of sociological questions are structural.  How does the notion of character speak to, or reflect all classes and cultures in our society and why is education ‘tasked’ with doing this sort of work?  New Labour social and education policy consistently framed an ideal kind of middle-class family that the rest of the country should be aspiring to emulate.  There was quite a narrow view of family culture reflected in their policies and one could quite easily imagine these notions of character fitting into a perception of the ‘ideal family’.  It is possible for these type of programmes to reproduce structural inequalities because not all young people have the cultural capital that ‘successful characters’ possess to begin with. However, to be fair to New Labour, through schemes such as Sure Start, there was a real attempt to lift children and families out of poverty and it is to their credit that there were improvements.  Which raises the question of why is it schools on their own should be engaged in this educative process?  Social policy should be addressing the means and opportunities that enable everyone to both feel better about themselves, and also to have to struggle less to make ends meet.  Perhaps then the questions of ‘character’ become less pressing in a more equal society? Social policy that tips the odds in favour of exisiting elites can make it easy for racism, intolerance and apathy to fester.

A third set of sociological questions, or suspicions, concerns the ideological work undertaken by notions of character.  I went to a selective grammar school that had rather an overt emphasis on ‘character’, which included lots of sport, teaching ‘classics’ and a combined cadet force aimed at instilling a ‘military discipline’.  The school offered me many opportunities, but I rebelled in my own angst ridden adolescent manner and grew rather suspicious of the term ‘character’, symbolising as I saw it  an outmoded bourgeois and imperialist culture.   Character for me had echoes of a discourse of ‘moral fibre’;  it was the ‘moral fibre’ of the English ruling classes that ran through our exploitative colonial history;  it was the ‘moral fibre’ of this  ruling class that ordered young men out of the trenches to be slaughtered.  When one has an idealised notion of character it can discursively paint a different picture of those who disrupt your rule.  In the First World War conscientious objectors and the shell-shocked could be executed for ‘cowardice’, “letting the side down”.   In contemporary English policy the discursive is also at work as the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable in our society can  be cast as those lacking in ‘character’, ‘it is their fault’.  The ideology at work here is to suggest that collectively we do not need to ask searching questions about the reasons for the ‘state’ of the ‘undeserving poor’, they lack character, so why should the rest of us ‘pick up the tab”? This maybe a provocative framing of the situation, but an education community needs to be careful that it does not use a list of ‘attributes’ and ‘traits’ to further divide young people into the possessors and the dispossessed, the wanted and the unwanted.

However, growing older I can see that there might be ways for the notion of ‘character’ to be positively revived.  This raises some philosophical suspicions.

So  what of the ethical point of character as embodying ‘virtues’ – where does it take us?  The aim of the DfE is to develop “virtues in pupils that are vital to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations”, which suggests that the proposal is somewhere in the territory of virtue ethics.  Virtue ethics has a long and varied history, and needs another post.  Just to say for now though, that philosophy and religion through the ages has presented different lists of virtues, each presumably must be understood within the context in which they were proposed.  Character in virtue ethics is not a fixed ‘trait’, (as the proposal might imply) but delineates the question of what would a good person do if faced with a set of challenging circumstances.  Sometimes, but not always, virtue ethics offers a rival normative theory to that of duty (deon, hence deontology), or utilitarianism.  However, as I will suggest below, these normative theories are not always clear cut and may need the support of each other in helping us make practical decisions.

The DfE aim seems more utilitarian than anything in that it amounts to little more than aggregating individual success in school and economic work to produce the sum of the greatest good.  One does not need an account of the virtues to fulfill this aim, it seems to be what education policy makers purport to be doing anyway – so why the new normative dimension?  Is dressing up education policy in the rhetoric of 21st century learning really a new legitimising language for the same old, same old, children as economic capital approach?  Re-branding the consumer society?

If the proposals are functional in a utilitarian way, then another suspicion is the question of whether this ‘award’ will be subject to the managerial and audit mania that bedevils contemporary organisational life? In other words, if it moves assess it; if you want funds – demonstrate impact; to demonstrate impact you need a set of objectives and criteria, and so on.  The managerial calculus likes to think it can pin these things down, but in the very act of doing so we distort the complex, and ethical, nature of the qualities in question.  Partly because if we class these ‘qualities’ as ethical virtues, as the proposal implies, then each one of the ‘character traits’ is often dependent upon the exercise of the others and is learnt in the pursuit of excellence that adheres to a particular practice, rather than to a set of abstract, isolated, criteria. For example, courage only becomes a virtue when exercised in the right manner for good purposes; often in acting courageously instinctive and contextual judgements are made about how to act, but these rely upon decisions drawn from a previous store of the ‘right’ experiences.

So there needs to be ‘educating’ work done about specific moral scenarios that are sometimes clear cut, but are often not and which need discussion, debate and dialogue to find some working accommodations.  For instance, some of the most evil people in the world, mainly men, demonstrate(d) drive, ambition, confidence, optimism and ‘grit’, they just inflict(ed) it upon their fellow humans.   Correctly then, there are qualities on the list above that have more of a moral flavour than those such as ‘grit’.  But how do you delineate tolerance or neighbourliness  for example?  What are the thresholds of our ‘tolerance’? There must be some cultural practices that we condemn – female genital mutilation or forced marriages, for example.  So there are moral obligations that require the removal of ignorance surrounding them, i.e. require teaching about and legal enforcement.  But what about the grey ‘areas’ of toleration where rules and rights are seen through cultural prisms? For example, arranged marriages. How does one have a ‘neighbourly’ dialogue about the ‘rights and wrongs’ of cultural differences ?   When does the ‘community spirit’ cited in the DfE proposals turn from mutual aid and just relations, into protectionism, isolation and ignorance?

One can advocate a position about a cultural practice with great dignity and as a person of honesty and integrity – it does not necessarily make the position either right or good. That judgement has to come out in the wash of debate and in the social practices through which we find mutually beneficial ways of living together.  Where in education policy are the spaces, times and knowledge resources to enable those tricky discussions about our social practices? While ‘character’ may help us to engage in the dialogue, the knowledge and the opportunity also need to be created.

thIf one was to work from an account of the virtuous life suggested by Aristotle (my reading of the Nicomachean Ethics), then what makes a flourishing human life (a eudaimon life) requires the acquisition and constant renewal of both moral and intellectual virtues.  These virtues are not won or gained, but habits that are tested in various areas of human activity; their ultimate aim is in supporting a state of contemplation, a theoretical wisdom.  There is an intellectual element (perhaps often overlooked) to Aristotle’s argument that defines the distinctiveness of humans, as opposed to other animals, as our capacity to reason and partake in a transcendent, a divine, one might say, spiritual understanding.  The notion of transcendence, thinking beyond our worldly concerns,  is suggested as the highest form of human good.  I am not entirely clear from my reading of Aristotle what exactly this contemplation might consist of, but the virtuous person, or character, in modern parlance, needs virtuous habits to do more than ‘succeed’ at work.

Of course one can argue that Aristotle is no longer relevant to contemporary education policy, but if ‘curiosity’ is to be taken seriously as one of the qualities, then exploring the history of these terms is important.   Is this character award reducing a nuanced and rich set of human qualities to a pat set of criteria to be ticked, or can it open doors for more ethical and just education practices? It could be positive, I so want to like the move as a possible departure from the dead hand of performativity that smothers our schools.

But why create a complex and inelegant list of qualities? What happened to the much more simply defined headings of the UNESCO report chaired by Jacques Delors?  In his recent post, Matthew (see Matthew’s post) wrote: “in this seminal report, “Learning – the treasure within” back in 1996 on behalf of UNESCO, he set out the first and best international definition of the challenges that we face to create a truly modern education system in a time of frightening global change. This almost utopian vision has influenced many nations to redefine their national curricula in terms broadly defined by its 4 pillars:

  • Learning to know
  • Learning to do
  • Learning to live with others
  • Learning to be

In Scotland, the national Curriculum for Excellence is massively and clearly built upon the Delors report”.

In English policy -zilch, no memory of the ideas expressed are apparent in policy.  Indeed, the Curriculum for Excellence was dismissively and ideologically consigned to the rubbish bin by Michael Gove.

Whatever habits one believes are necessary to create a more just and good life for humanity, it is going to take one heck of an effort, hard work, political will, intellectual knowledge and emotional engagement.  But does it not also need love and joy, sorrow and failure, to make the innovative leaps beyond the calculus of checklists and matrices that like some new religion we believe will steer us through the uncertainties of the hell humanity is creating? Oh, perhaps that is what this ‘character’ thing  is all about?

Image courtesy of by sattva at