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.