virtue insight

conversations on character


February 2017

Take the First Step to Happiness – and Get Over Yourself!

Philosopher Candace Vogler, of the University of Chicago, is a principal investigator in a project grappling with virtue, happiness and the meaning of life. 

Prof Vogler is seeking to establish if self-transcendence – the sense that life is part of a bigger good – helps to make the cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of profound human fulfillment. 

A keynote speaker at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ annual conference at Oriel College, Oxford, Prof Vogler speaks to journalist Richard McComb about the project.

Why do some people who have everything one could wish for – a successful job, beautiful home, loving partner and healthy children – feel there is a big empty hole in their lives?

And why do other people with similar lives, or with lives lacking some of these features, feel happy?

Candace Vogler believes the key to the riddle may lie with self-transcendence, that spiritual dimension of human life in which individuals feel connected to a greater good.

Prof Vogler’s 28-month network project, due to finish in November 2017, is comprised of an inter-disciplinary team of scholars including psychologists, philosophers and religious thinkers. Its members are seeking to establish if self-transcendence “helps to make ordinary cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of deep happiness and meaning in human life.”

Participating in a greater good could mean campaigning for a cause, such as environmentalism, or following a faith. Self-transcendence might be achieved via participation in a large, generational family. As Vogler says, “The good you enjoy is partly made possible by the struggles, work and effort of people who came before you. Your hope is to carry something forward in the future, maybe something that is good in a way you can’t yet imagine. You identify so strongly with family that they become a part of you.”

As part of the project, professionals working in diverse field, from cognitive neuroscience to Islamic studies, come together with ‘work in progress’ which is shaped by shared questions. During week-long sessions in the winter and late spring, the scholars discuss their work in a dynamic, creative atmosphere. “The collaboration happens at the point the work is taking shape,” says Vogler.

Updates and insights are disseminated via the project’s blog, The Virtue Blog, public lectures and media interviews. A capstone conference takes place at the University of Chicago in October, which will be free and open to the public.

At a time of socio-political upheaval and uncertainty, both in Europe and the United States, it is perhaps not surprising that public interest has focused on the project’s pursuit of happiness.

Prof Vogler is wonderfully candid in her responses when asked about the secret of happiness.

“Stage one is, ‘Get over yourself!’” she says. “Don’t worry so much about self-actualisation, self-expression, self-development, self-this, self-that.

“See if you can break the fascination of your own ego for a little bit. See if you can turn your attention to something that is genuinely self-transcendent, that connects you to a world bigger than your intimate circle – and engage there. That is likely to be where you will develop in virtue and character. Your character develops when you get opportunities that are expressive and productive of goods bigger than you are.

“Do you engage at the soup kitchen a couple of times a week because you know you are supposed to be charitable? No, you volunteer at the soup kitchen by opening yourself up to the possibility that you could be drawn out of yourself rather than affirmed in a sense of your own goodness. The self-transcendence provides the context in which virtue is at home.”

Prof Vogler has little time for self-righteous navel-gazing, adding: “You don’t have a beautiful soul if it’s useless to everyone around you. You don’t have a beautiful soul if you can’t be bothered to think about how to engage more effectively in the world that you find yourself in, not just for the sake of your own success but for the sake of contributing to what is good in that world and helping it struggle against what is bad.”


Character Education in Spain: Problems and Potential

One of the developing trends in education, internationally, over the last few years, has been the renewed attention to the moral dimensions of education, and more specifically, to character education. Spain is slowly starting to refocus its interest in the sphere of character education; however, it is happening more slowly than in other countries such as the USA or UK. The reasons for this reluctance have deep sociohistorical roots, and I cannot possibly analyse all of them in detail here.  However, I will focus on two of the most significant issues before finally exploring the potential for character education in Spain in the immediate future.

We should begin by referring back to Spain’s history during the twentieth century; the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Franco regime and the Spanish Constitution that gave place to democracy in 1978. Despite the amount of time past, almost four decades, the conflict between the two sides is still kept alive in many different ambits of Spanish society, and some wounds have yet to heal. This can be seen in the educational context, where we have witnessed a lack of focus on moral issues, not only in educational laws, but in the writings of many scholars and the educational projects of many schools; and not just public schools, but also religious schools. For many, the concept of moral education has been considered too close to indoctrination, and the word virtue has lost its true meaning, in the classical sense, and is perceived only in its religious dimension, and thus rejected; being interpreted as a move towards secularisation on the one hand, and modernity, laicity and democracy, on the other.

The second issue cannot be viewed in isolation from the first, and within the sociohistorical context, the two are very much interrelated.  Despite the constitutional agreement, since the beginning of Spain’s democracy, several educational laws have been alternatively approved by left and right parties, which have failed to reach a basic consensus on education that avoided ideological confrontation and allowed coexistence. Article 27 of the Spanish Constitution establishes both the right to education and the freedom of teaching; these have been interpreted in different ways, and have either emphasised one or the other. This has produced, in some cases, zero sum games, where accepting one automatically suppresses the other.

As a solution, Spain passed a paradigmatic law, the Ley Orgánica de Educación (LOE), which in 2006 included citizenship education as a compulsory subject for every school. This received a lot of criticism from some influential quarters of the Spanish population due to its mandatory focus on character and its ideological and legalist dimensions. However, this can be seen from two perspectives, which in fact provides us with two faces of the same coin. Whilst it was an important moment that again placed on the table certain moral aspects of education, it was at the same time a lost opportunity. This is because a new education proposal with axiological character did not foster a consensus but instead continued to perpetuate those old social conflicts.

Nevertheless, despite these problems, we can say that never before have we had such an opportunity to promote moral education in Spain, and therefore, character education. Whilst there is a general dissatisfaction with the use of education as a political football, it seems that some initiatives are being developed to reach a minimum consensus that avoids past legislative swing and promotes respect for these two constitutionals principles. Whilst the failed citizenship education has highlighted the difficulty, if not the impossibility of reaching a consensus, it does not mean that education with an explicit moral dimension should be rejected outright. We should continue to look for a new way that could be adopted to accommodate different sensibilities, taking into account the number of mainly religious schools, but not limited to Catholic schools, according to the Spanish Constitution.

Within this new framework, character education could be a valuable option because of its versatility in different contexts, its attention to intellectual, social and individual aspects, and its important theoretical basis that avoids being reduced to a new educational fad, and susceptible to ideological manipulation. But this very much depends on us.

Dr. Juan Fuentes is an Assistant Professor in the Theory and History of Education Department at Complutense University of Madrid. Juan is on a scholarship from the Spanish Government and is working at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Can a Habit of Service Help to Build a ‘Shared Society?’

The value of engaging young people in positive social action has been working its way up the political agenda for some time.

An independent review into youth social action launched by former Prime Minister David Cameron led to the #iwill campaign, which aims to harness the creativity, energy and talents of 10 to 20-year-olds for the benefit of participants and their local communities. The National Citizen Service, which encourages young people to work on community projects, is set to receive permanent statutory status thanks to a Bill passing through Parliament with Government support.

As part of her plans to create a “great meritocracy,” Mr Cameron’s successor Theresa May unveiled an £80 million funding allocation for youth projects in England just months after entering Downing Street last year. The grants, to be distributed via the #iwill Fund and the Youth Investment Fund, form part of the new Tory administration’s “determination to build a country that works for everyone” so that “young people can go as far as their talents allow, regardless of their backgrounds.”

Delivering the Charity Commission’s annual lecture, Mrs May outlined her vision for a “shared society” that “respects the bonds that we share as a union of people and nations. The bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions.”

But having galvanised young people, how do groups, policymakers and practitioners encourage longer-term commitments so that individuals view activities such as volunteering, fundraising and campaigning as something more than a one-off?

The question goes to the heart of a ground-breaking project led by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Focusing on the civic virtue of service, the study, thought to be the first of its kind, seeks to investigate and understand what constitutes a habit of service for young people.

By looking at the idea of habit, researchers hope to understand how young people who have already made a commitment to service sustain that habit. How does meaningful social action become an embedded part of life rather than a flash in the pan?

The Centre’s final report aims to enhance theoretical understanding about the habit of service and inform policy and practice to boost young people’s participation in actions that benefit others. At the same time, the study dovetails with the Jubilee Centre’s wider investigation into how “schools, youth social action providers and other organisations build character virtues in order to transform lives and contribute to a flourishing society.”

The Centre has worked with the #iwill campaign since 2014 and has already revealed that youth social action providers believe the character development of participants is central to their work. In seeking to understand what makes a habit of service, this new investigation uses two complementary research methods: an online questionnaire completed by more than 4,500 16 to 20-year-olds (a far larger sample than previous studies relating to habit) and detailed life history interviews. The survey participants have been recruited with the help of youth action providers and schools and colleges with a track record of social action provision. In total, 12 organisations, schools, colleges and groups have been involved including vInspired and the National Citizen Service.

Meaningful social action is defined by the #iwill campaign as activity in which young people participate “at least every few months, or in a one-off activity lasting more than a day, and recognising the benefits it had for themselves and for the community or cause they were helping.”

Researchers hypothesised that a habit of service involves a young person both participating in social action in the past 12 months and intending to participate in future. The activity or service is part of their character and is encouraged and role-modelled by family and friends.

The scope of youth social action activities is wide, including those involving, for example: education providers (schools, colleges and universities); apprenticeships or jobs; local communities; places of worship; clubs and groups; family and friends; and individual activities. The activities could range from a sponsored event and campaigning to mentoring, volunteering with a charity or supporting an elderly neighbour.

The study will seek to highlight which virtues young people with a habit of service most strongly identify with.

Following completion and analysis of the questionnaire and interviews, the Centre will consult with youth service providers to develop a “best practice” guide to inform future policy and promote the value of inspiring and developing a habit of service among young people.

As one young interviewee put it, being involved in service has “just developed me so much as a person … it’s given me purpose to do something with my life, and to do something that I care about”. This research will inform practitioners and policymakers to support more young people to find their own purpose, developing their character and helping others at the same time.

Emma Taylor-Collins, Research Associate                                                                                   Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Developing Children into Good People

In this Vlog, Professor Marvin W Berkowitz, Professor of Character Education at University of Missouri – St Louis, talks about the drawbacks of taking a purely pedagogical approach to Character Education.  If the aim of Character Education is to develop children into good people, then Professor Burkowitz suggests that we need to adopt more sociological and psychological strategies within Character Education in order to develop more holistically good people.

Professor Marvin W. Berkowitz is the inaugural Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor of Character Education, and Co-Director of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and University of Missouri President’s Thomas Jefferson Professor. His scholarly focus and expertise is in character education and development, moral development, and prevention of risky behaviours.

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