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April 2017

Character Education in East Asia and England

The goals of character building in East Asian countries is often presented as a shared cultural construct and positioned within an East-West dichotomy. However, it is not at all clear that East Asian forms of character education are as easily identifiable and distinct or that they always transcend national and cultural values. The former Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, announced in December 2014 that she intended to secure England’s place as a global leader by expanding the nation’s provision and evidence base for character education.  As the British government look for policy solutions to new and challenging problems, including character education, what answers can we find from abroad? What can we learn, borrow or pinch from these East Asian countries?

Character education in East Asian schools is experiencing a remarkable revival and re-emphasis. The purpose of education, as expressed through government legislation and regulations, in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Japan has traditionally been explicitly linked to the building of character. Each of these countries has either introduced new goals for character education or is currently planning a new curriculum in the next three years. Parental and societal concern about the behavior of students is a factor fueling the move to revitalize character education.  On a broader level, what is happening is perhaps symptomatic of the vacuum of meaning engendered by consumerism and materialism, the symptoms of which these governments are recognizing without necessarily understanding the full range of causes.

Why should national governments legislate for and promote virtue in their school systems? Why is it sometimes assumed that there ought to be a role for governments to make people morally better in some way? What is the State’s role in promoting character education? These questions lie at the heart of understanding the theoretical basis on which the modern State intervenes in the school curriculum. In East Asia there is a diverse body of philosophical and religious approaches that form the backdrop to educational thinking, including Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Maoism. In the West the focus is almost exclusively on Western philosophical traditions, but there has been an enormous amount of interaction between East and Western thought. Therefore to categorise the West as simply concerned about individualism and free debates in education and the East as predominantly about the collective and social harmony in schools would be misleading.

Nevertheless, character education policy is usually framed in response to the prevalent values in a particular political context or jurisdiction. National cultural traditions are a major determinant and influence on education systems and therefore these systems are culturally realised and to a degree localised. East Asian societies in general have largely converged on similarly stated purposes for character education. There is a similarity of rhetoric, issues, justifications and developments in character education policies in many of these East Asian countries which are arrived at without any direct political link between them. These countries, it could be argued, have a comparable social-cultural formation in norms, values, beliefs and traditions that have their origin in different levels of Confucian influence which have combined to produce broadly comparable policy goals for character education. The guiding philosophy and discourse for these similarities in policy is derived only in part from Confucian educational ideals and heritage with the emphasis on discipline, respect and humility. Confucianism is most closely associated with Chinese societies and is about how people treat one another together with how they behave themselves. It is not seen as a religion, but as a system of moral, social and political philosophy. It is a system of thought centred on the Confucian theory of ren. This encompasses feelings, love and empathy and rests on the idea that if you want to be successful you must first help others to be successful. It sets standards for civility and appropriate behaviour and the main goal is the cultivation of character. However, it is important to be cautious in applying Confucian ideas too broadly in East Asian societies as it is easy to exaggerate and over generalize its influence.

Like England, these East Asian societies are largely marked by competitive, data-driven standardised public school examinations and many believe that these systems have had a detrimental effect on attempts at character building in students. The renewed focus on character education is intended to counterbalance the perceived materialistic and selfish tendencies generated by the exclusive focus on academic successes in which a student’s worth is judged solely upon their academic attainment as measured by public examinations.

A general definition of character education that could be accepted in both East and West might be the acquisition and strengthening of virtues that sustain a well-rounded life and a thriving society.  English education traditionally saw the purpose of education as character building and this was the explicit aim of the Department for Education until just after the Second World War. The purposes of East Asian national character education programmes are similar to what Nicky Morgan articulated at the Sunday Times Festival of Education in July 2015 when she said ‘building a strong character and a sense of moral purpose is the responsibility we have toward our children, our society, our nation’. This could have been echoed by any Minister of Education in East Asia. The emphasis in English government circles over the last few years has been to emphasise resilience and grit, borrowed language from the US, and linked to increased academic attainment. So far there have been no government guidelines issued on what character education means, but it has become one of the five aims of the Department of Education and there is a Minister responsible for introducing it and he is aided by a special character unit of civil servants.

The goals of character education in England are not as clear as those officially stipulated in East Asian countries.  East Asian governments annunciate clear and ambitious goals that serve to inspire and reinforce character education coupled with resources and training programmes to ensure a greater degree of implementation than we find in England. They normally construct policy goals through long and detailed consultations with teachers, academics and civil servants. This last point is certainly worth learning and copying.

Professor James Arthur is Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Is Honesty the Best Policy for the Ideal Business Professional?

Money, it is said, makes the world go round and the individuals who generate pounds, dollars and yuan are rarely out of the news.

The world’s largest economy, the United States, is now run by a veteran businessman rather than a career politician. The elevation of billionaire Donald Trump to the Oval Office has ensured business, and “the art of the deal,” is at the forefront of political and popular discourse.

Trump’s business empire, conduct and character have inevitably come under the microscope. Whatever you might think of the star of “The Apprentice,” the balance sheet suggests he is a hugely successful businessman, Forbes magazine putting the entrepreneur’s net worth at $3.5 billion (£2.8 billion).

By anyone’s standards, the balance sheet is a fair indicator of commercial acumen although clearly it is not the only one. But what are the character strengths that men and women value most highly for competing on the trading floor, and in the office and the boardroom – and do they match the traits that individuals perceive in their own characters?

In an era of regularly reported corporate scandals, is honesty still valued in the business world – and is there a place for love?

Research by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues for its Virtuous Character in Business and Finance project has produced some interesting findings with regard to these questions and throws new light on the nature of professional conduct and behaviour.

The Business and Finance project is one of three looking at the ethics of professionals, running alongside separate examinations of character and virtues among soldiers and nurses. It is looking at three specific business groups and hopes to discover how virtue ethics can help professionals to navigate the ethical dilemmas thrown up by their everyday work.

A total of 13 business schools agreed to take part in the project and researchers have been exploring the attitudes of first-year undergraduates as well as final-year students. The project’s third cohort comprises business school alumni with at least five years’ professional experience.

All the groups were asked to complete a survey and a smaller number have been taking part in semi-structured interviews.

Using the template established by the Via Institute on Character, nearly 800 respondents were asked to choose six character strengths that best describe the sort of person they are. Across the different career stage groups, the top traits (in order of importance) were: honesty, fairness, teamwork, humour, kindness and leadership.

The character traits deemed to be the least important were zest, spirituality, and appreciation of beauty. Another low ranked trait was prudence, which was identified by just 1% of first-year business school students.

Small gender difference also emerged – so women were more likely to identify with kindness while men were more likely to select teamwork.

Established business and finance professionals, some of whom have more than 20 years’ experience, rated hope and love low on the list, being reported by just 1% of respondents. The top attributes for the career-established group (five years’ experience) was fairness followed by honesty.

For a different perspective, the same people were asked to identify the character strengths of the “ideal” finance and business professional. There was more broad agreement than with the exercise involving self-reflection with all three groups highlighting the same five “go to” traits: leadership, judgment, teamwork, honesty and fairness.

For the sixth trait, first-year students identified creativity; final-year undergraduates picked perseverance; and employed professionals reported perspective.

Leadership was the most important character strength for the ideal business executive, according to both sets of students (13%). The Number One trait for established professionals was honesty (13%).

Again, there were gender differences: women favoured social intelligence while men were more likely to report judgment as being important for the ideal professional.

The least popular character strength was spirituality – registering virtually 0% in the sample – followed by love, forgiveness, zest and hope. Modesty and appreciation of beauty also fared badly when people were asked about the ideal professional.

Furthermore, respondents may have believed humour is a key character strength in their own self-assessment (it was the fourth most important across the three groups), the ability to “have a laugh” is relatively insignificant when the same people were asked about the ideal business professional, with 1% to 2% highlighting it as an important trait.

The survey highlights a clear disparity between personal, self-reflection on character strengths and notions of the “ideal,” which is always the case. Perhaps there are steps that can be taken to constructively bridge this gap.

We hope that our research will offer practical suggestions to improve education and training in British business schools and hopefully this will help to address the importance the ethics and increase attention in this vital area.

 

Dr Yan Huo
Research Fellow
Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

 

Encouraging Pupils’ Virtue Literacy through the Visual Arts

Several years ago, I started to include philosophical discussions in my art classes, driven by my desire to deepen pupils’ moral reflection on art projects.

I established a community of inquiry in groups of 8th grade pupils, and the first artwork I proposed was René Magritte’s “Not to be reproduced” from 1937. Given the paradoxical nature of Magritte’s painting, I had no idea about the direction the discussion could take.

Many pupils were perplexed by the incongruity of Magritte’s depiction and their discussions revolved around its formal aspects: whether the man was looking at his impossible reflection or an impossible painting.

However, signs of deeper reflection soon started to emerge: “Could it be that he has done something wrong and that he cannot look himself in the eyes?” asked one pupil in a thoughtful manner.

Another concluded “he must be ashamed of himself!” while a third pupil elaborated: “… maybe he doesn’t want to confront truth … could this be his emotions?”

It was remarked that “sometimes paintings are nonsensical and are not describing what could happen in life, but they can be expressing emotions”.

The discussions were promising and motivated me to develop my experiments.

Although Magritte’s paintings can be read through the scope of metaphysics, they do not carry the narrative structure which I believed could bring my pupils’ discussions closer to their personal experiences. To address these considerations, I introduced Edvard Munch’s painting “The Sick Child” (1885-86). As the discussions evolved, I was surprised by the consensus expressed by the pupils when they judged the painting to be “good” or “well done”, even “beautiful”, but stated explicitly, without being prompted, they would not want to have it hanging on a wall at home.

These replies invoked fascinating questions:

  • Why would students not want to enjoy at home a beautiful, skilfully executed and balanced painting?
  • Why did they feel the need to express voluntarily their lack of desire to possess a picture they already had judged as having all the elements of a desirable artwork?

Munch was obsessed with death in many of his works and this painting is no exception. Munch portrays his older sister, Johanna Sophie, aged 15, sitting in an armchair with her posture expressing weakness, holding hands with, and looking at, her seemingly older relative, who droops her head in anguish. The scene depicts a critical moment in human life where a young person is facing, as it appears, inevitable death. Munch expresses the helplessness of the older woman, depicting her in dark clothing with drooping head, avoiding looking at the fair child with glowing red hair, who seems to have made peace with her destiny.

Asked to justify their decision not to have the picture hanging on their wall, the pupils gave me various reasons: “It’s too sad looking”; “It’s gloomy”; “It’s depressive”; “She’s going to die and the woman is crying”; “Reminds me of death”; “It’s about an illness”; and “Watching it makes me sad.”

In contrast with these resolute answers, one student took a more stoic position, concluding that while the picture was sad, it reminds us of the fact that everyone will die.

My pupils’ replies introduce, in my opinion, important educational opportunities: the emotional arousal triggers cognitive reflection on life’s challenges. Articulating and conceptualising the inner workings of their emotional struggle can make youngsters conscious of the rationality of their own feelings and emotions, which have moral import through the reflection on moral agency. This could help them cultivate their character by taking important steps in developing rational thinking through moral and virtue literacy.

Although an ethical analysis of art can be beneficial for character education, I believe such benefits can be more effective when applied to pupils’ own art. In recent projects, I invited pupils to express their notions on moral virtues in their own artworks and I asked them to relate them to personal experiences.

One pupil painted herself in mid-air, jumping from a cliff into the sea. The scene is illuminated by a dramatic red sunset and although she depicts herself as a tiny and vulnerable human being against the vastness of the world, she is smiling; she exhibits pleasure and excitement in her courageous feat. Using black ink, she wrote a statement on the red sky: “There is no courage without fear.”

When discussing her artwork, the pupil said it was inspired by a holiday at the seaside with her family. She had jumped from a high cliff into the sea. Further down the road, she could identify the excess and the deficiency of courage through her experience: some people jumped from very high cliffs while others didn’t jump at all.

I believe that encouraging pupils to relate moral concepts to their experiences and express and develop them further in art is an exciting opportunity to establish a solid ground for educating character in schools. For the time being, I am working on a larger scale research project that hopefully can establish a better picture on the relationship between character education and the arts.

Ingimar Ólafsson Waage is a visual artist and art educator working on a PhD thesis on the visual arts and character education at the University of Iceland. He has spent time at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and is working with some of the Centre’s methods and materials.

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