We now know more than ever about what makes humans flourish. This has been driven by dramatic advances in genetics, psychological research, neurobiology, behavioral economics and a number of other disciplines in the past three decades. As New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests this “intellectual revolution” exposes the superficiality of public current policy debate. It is also potentially as profound as the enlightenment in terms of influencing transition in the way we organise our societies. In many ways, Brooks concludes that this “intellectual revolution” does not actually teach us much new, it just confirms what Aristotle claimed about the building blocks of human flourishing
But even so, it provides compelling new evidence for someone like me who advocates with governments for improved human rights outcomes for children, particularly for building education & child protection systems & youth policies that promote flourishing and mitigate adversity. In addition to fulfilling the immediate human rights of the child, there is now a robust investment case that any government’s child development strategy is as important as its fiscal or economic policy for long-term prosperity. Development of character, sometimes described as social & emotional or non-cognitive skills, is now central to any informed child development policy.
Children develop character through experience from the day they are born. Interactions with parents and in kindergartens and schools shape that character-most intensively in the first five years of life, but also through middle childhood and adolescence. This is important because we now know that character traits, such as perseverance, optimism or integrity, are perhaps as important as IQ in determining success and wellbeing throughout the life-cycle and including what that person will contribute to his or her society. We have also learnt that such skills are teachable, throughout the life cycle of the child. Children will learn character regardless of the teacher or parent having a strategy for teaching. The type of character traits they learn will determine the type of life they lead and thus the quality of the societies in which we live.
We also now know that the prevalence of childhood adversity, growing in dysfunctional families where addiction or alcoholism, violence or neglect are present, is much greater than previously supposed. Growing up in a dysfunctional family has a neurobiological impact of chronic stress on the fragile development of the child and leaves lasting scars that result in much worse life outcomes. In adolescence, such children are much more likely to make negative and irreversible life-changing decisions. Often the only hope such children have is the intervention of a family member, social worker or teacher who can help the child to harness inner strength and character to make better choices, build self-esteem, resilience & a path to recovery.
In the Sustainable Development Goals, the member states of the United Nations agreed universal pre-school, better early childhood development and tackling violence are global priorities. Not just because of the human right imperative of ensuring the best interest of every child, but also because the evidence of the past decades has clearly shown such investments yield the best return in promoting long term prosperity and wellbeing of our societies and our planet.
Character education provides a methodological framework for communities including teachers, families and children to learn character skills that are most relevant to the development of children in their society. The approach is evidence based and character education is sensitive to cultural context but always must be aligned with global values, human rights norms and respect for diversity.
Character education is increasingly being integrated into mainstream education systems, but is also being adapted to non-formal settings which can better reach children affected by adversity and exclusion There are new ways not only of measuring performance and practice of individual character, or social and emotional skills taught, but also potentially of measuring the impact on broader school and life outcomes.
Ultimately character education and the latest knowledge that underpins it is part of a broader new approach to public policy that recognises the complexity and depth of human development. Such an approach is essential for fulfilling human rights and promoting human flourishing and wellbeing in a world that never stops changing.
Benjamin Perks, UN Human Rights Diplomat
and Senior Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues