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Encouraging Virtuous Living Through Poetry

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words
– Robert Frost

In this blog post, I wish to describe my proposed PhD project that I’m undertaking as of this coming autumn. I’d like to begin by briefly explaining the concept of character education, before describing the elements of poetry that are conducive to increasing virtue literacy. Finally, I’ll address, in light of my discussion, whether character education is something that can be taught or caught.

Character education is based on the ideal that certain qualities or character traits can, and should be, developed to a positive effect within the school system. The idea of character education is grounded on the theory that students can be assisted or guided into understanding and wanting to acquire such virtues. Building on the work already carried out by the Jubilee Centre, my PhD research will look to develop interventions in schools that enable teachers to build on the qualities or virtues in question, in their own teaching.

The focus of my forthcoming PhD research is centred on character education through literature. Using stories and narratives as a conduit for teaching virtue literacy is not a new thing. The Knightly Virtues project carried out by the Jubilee Centre successfully utilised classic stories about knights and the chivalric code, in order to increase virtue literacy in 9 to 11 year olds, particularly around the virtues of gratitude, self-discipline, love, service, humility, courage and justice.  Where my research departs from this, however, is that it will take a starting point in poetry.

The students will be taught poetry as (A) a craft, (B) an art, and most importantly (C) as a source of moral reflection. This will entail reading and writing poetry, as well as philosophical discussion and contemplation, which I intend to carry out in the following manner:

1. The students will be given creative writing exercises. The purpose of this is twofold. They will learn to experience the creative aspect of poetry and to trust themselves as having a poetic voice.

2. The students will learn to trust the group when they address poetry in an intersubjective environment, both by opening up themselves to others and by welcoming the poetic voice expressed by others. For instance, when a poem is read aloud, the teacher can ask each student to write down one word on a piece of paper, to express what emotion they might be feeling after hearing the poem. The teacher then writes everything on the whiteboard and, if appropriate, asks some of the students to elaborate on their chosen word. This can be a source for philosophical discussions. It’s also appropriate to read song lyrics, watch music videos, anything that the students can relate with (maybe watch a film like Dead Poets Society, for instance, if the age group is suitable).

3. The students will engage in philosophical discussions about what they read and write. The aim of this is to understand and express the subject matter of the poem in moral or philosophical terms. This will provide the students with a tool for critical thinking.

The elements of poetry that are conducive to increasing virtue literacy, to name a few, are:

  • it induces the imagination, which, in turn, awakens the moral imagination
  • it fosters ethical reflection, helping students to develop the cognitive side of their character
  • it provides the students with a tool for recognising and acknowledging their feelings and emotions
  • it gives the students an effective technique in measuring the aforementioned emotions against ethical concepts, vices and virtues, etc.

Although stories can trigger similar effects, poetry has a unique capacity to unify the pupils’ perspectives and experiences through symbols or language. When engaged with poetry, one enters a region of thought and emotions. When applied to an intellectual process in the face of whatever emotions it may stir, a poem can teach one something about oneself.

My proposed PhD project ultimately seeks to encourage virtuous living through the use of poetry but it does beg one final question; can character education be caught or taught? In reference to what I’ve said and how I view the study of poetry, I’d say that character education through poetry is first and foremost a very rich and creative way for students to connect with, and make sense of their emotions. But, as I’ve described, it helps if this takes place within a group of trust, and, of course, with constructive guidance. In other words, character education can, and should, be taught. But it is also caught, so to speak, by youngsters when their elders, be it their teachers, parents or role-models, set a good example.

Kristian Guttesen is a teacher, about to begin his PhD studies in the Jubilee Centre on poetry and character education.

Telling Stories: Using Cinema for Character Education Part I

The art of cinema is the art of telling stories. For thousands of years we have used the persuasive power of stories to build cultures, imbed morals and to understand what it is to be human. From Jesus’ parables to Grimm’s fairy tales, stories resonate with us on a far deeper level than rhetoric.

Today, stories have become a central part of character education and there is a long-standing tradition of regarding literature as conducive to the teaching of character. Research by the Jubilee Centre in our Knightly Virtues project has already demonstrated the positive effects on virtue literacy that adapted stories from classical literature can have, in terms of helping educate Key Stage 2 pupils about the qualities of virtuous character. The Centre is also investigating how poetry can also be used in similar ways with Key Stage 3 pupils and an affiliated PhD student is beginning to look at the character-cultivating properties of painting and sculpture.

As a self-confessed cinephile, I would argue that cinema, and in particular popular Hollywood cinema, also deserves further consideration as a conduit for teaching character. Cinema is now our primary medium for storytelling and in our digital age our access to films has never been greater.  Using film as an aid for teaching character is not a new idea and resources are available, however, more light could be shone on this, particularly into the effectiveness of using film for improving virtue literacy. Whilst there is no denying that Hollywood film is produced primarily for the purpose of mass entertainment, I would assert that  a close reading of many popular films, particularly when done so through a character education lens, can show that cinema has a greater capacity for moral self-reflection and critique than one might imagine. If students are taught the methods in which to critically evaluate and reflect on the nature of virtuous character, then popular cinema can be edifying as well as entertaining.

As the dominant visual culture, cinema is incredibly persuasive. Film theorists have long understood films to be socially constructed, ideologically driven, coded texts. Over the course of the last hundred years cinema has helped reinforce prevailing cultural norms and legitimised dominant institutions and social values such as patriarchy, capitalism and class. Equally of course, cinema has also been used to critique those existing structures.

Whilst mainstream cinema is ideological and therefore unavoidably political, research has shown that like other narrative forms it is also psychologically transportive. By this I mean the process through which the reader (or spectator in this case) is emotionally immersed into the world of the narrative to such an extent that their beliefs and attitudes are changed. An engrossing story has the potential to temporarily remove us from the reality of the physical world and takes us into the fictional world of the story. A consequence of this, according to research, means that narrative transportation is likely to create strong feelings towards story characters; the experience or beliefs of those characters may then have an enhanced influence on the reader’s beliefs.

Processing films this way means that the stories we watch in the cinema have the power to connect with us and possibly change our beliefs in a far greater way than any other narrative form. This may be because cinema is a great communicator, it is fast, effortless and absorbing in a way that the written word just can’t be or indeed need be. Cinema has the capability to mirror the forms of people’s lives, or at least the form needed for us to find those lives meaningful in a context that is familiar and that we understand. Even the struggles and dilemmas of anthropomorphised creatures in animated films become identifiable with our own experiences, even when they don’t necessarily match our everyday existence.

Like the great authors, the skillful filmmaker has the power to create the kind of quality stories and compelling and believable characters that can move us, shape our perceptions and make us think differently about the world.

This emotional investment has great implications for character education. It is important that we continue to explore new methods in which to help young people develop moral values and a sense of civic responsibility, and cinema offers a wonderful opportunity to observe and discuss moral dilemmas in interesting and engaging ways that are easily relatable.

There is no shortage of appropriate films for a younger audience that embody and reinforce virtuous themes such as courage, honesty and temperance through characterisation and plot. In the Disney film Frozen, for example, the actions of the central character Elsa, and her decision to ostracise herself from the community so that she is free to wield her powers, has severe implications for the people of her kingdom. It is not until she learns self-control over her powers that she finds happiness and the world is put right again. In the forthcoming second part of this blog I would like to provide further specific examples of how such character virtues are transposed in popular films.

By using films to encourage discussion around moral dilemmas, we can provide young people with unique and exciting opportunities for intellectual and moral growth. Cinema provides us with an invaluable opportunity to see the world differently through the eyes of the film protagonist. The kind of problems or difficult situations they face, the values they demonstrate, and the actions they take show us how human character reveals itself in recognisable contexts, which in turn invites us to ask questions about what sort of person we ourselves might aspire to be …even if the protagonist we identify with is a talking toy or a princess with magical powers.

Mathew Butcher, Communications and Web Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Do Flawed Super Heroes or Saints Make the Best Moral Exemplars for Young People?

The role of moral exemplars in character education is often neglected, despite the fact that pointing to models of virtue is an effective way of reminding us of the kind of person we wish to be.

It is common to hear teachers tell pupils to “be yourself, don’t copy anyone!”, making emulation sound like poor behaviour.

Nevertheless, ordinary experience suggests we cannot help but admire some people and we long to imitate them. This is why educating through exemplars has always played a fundamental role in teaching, where the educator refers to historical, mythical or current exemplars to attract the novice’s interest.

Encountering a moral exemplar, in person or through narratives, elicits admiration and can be of the utmost moral significance, capable of changing our lives in significant ways. As philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch would have said, morality is not primarily a matter of struggling to act well, but above all it is about having a strong attachment towards the right people and taking inspiration from them.

Thus, the real point is this: who can we count on as genuine moral exemplars? Is it saints, who are supposed to possess all the virtues? Or is it heroes, who display one or more virtues to an exceptional degree but are imperfect in other respects?

Figures such as St Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Jesus and Mother Teresa are often cited as examples of saintly moral morality; whereas lists of heroes might include Robin Hood, Oskar Schindler, Marie Sklodowska Curie and Leopold Socha. In other words, the question is this: is it legitimate to point a child’s attention to imperfect models, or should we limit ourselves to models of supposed perfection?

Saints are arguably superior to heroes. When faced with heroes, novices risk admiring the non-virtuous traits of say Batman or Sherlock Holmes. Saints, of course, are admirable in all respects.

However, heroes are also fundamental for virtue education. The fact heroes excel in a limited number of virtues makes it easier for novices to identify their exemplar traits. Additionally, this makes novices more likely to imitate them as virtuous heroes come close to our imperfect condition as they exhibit non-virtuous traits. A hero’s possession of moral faults may persuade novices that moral exemplarity is not out of reach, and is “close” to them in a psychological sense.

In both kinds of exemplarity, a good educational strategy points to exemplars who are close to young people in an experiential sense. It highlights ordinary “heroes” and “saints” worthy of imitation among relatives, friends and teachers. The fact they are unlikely to become famous should not prevent us from trying to follow their moral path.

The strategy has its risks. Take the example of a child who improperly admires people close to them in the experiential sense, like the son or daughter who considers the criminal deeds of a mother or father as morally exemplary and tries to imitate the parent.

Exemplar-based accounts of character education can tackle this problem by suggesting the educator presents the pupil with alternatives, i.e. authentic, moral exemplars to admire and imitate. In felicitous cases, an encounter with alternative and worthy-of-emulation exemplars provides the pupil with the motivation they would otherwise lack to revise their objects of admiration.

The path towards admiring virtuous exemplars is not always direct; there may be subtle twists and turns. It is reasonable to expect the pupil will be challenged by the fact that alternative models have been presented to them, and engage in an enriching dialogue with the educator about the differences between these figures and the “vicious” exemplars they admire. The chances of revising an attachment to bad exemplars are much higher if the pupil can engage with the story of virtuous exemplars, rather than simply being told to abandon admiration of vicious models.

Communities that adopt exemplar-based accounts of education can benefit from its sensitivity to “ordinary” exemplars: identifying exemplars in small groups can strengthen personal bonds and enrich mutual trust among members of a community through shared admiration of a particular exemplar. It can also encourage the exemplar’s deeper engagement with the moral goals of those who admire him or her.

  • Moral exemplarity and related issues will be discussed at Aretai – Center on Virtues 2nd annual conference, in Genoa, Italy, October 5-6. For more information, visit the conference website.

Michel Croce is Early Stage Marie Curie Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh, and Maria Silvia Vaccarezza is Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Classics, Philosophy and History, University of Genoa.

Michel and Maria are also Fellow Researchers at Aretai – Center on Virtues, a partner centre of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Three Conceptions of Integrity and Two Important Questions

The virtue of integrity used to be the darling of virtue ethicists and character educators in the 1980s and 1990s, but for some reason it seems to have fallen out of favour. I return to that apparent ‘fall from grace’ at the end of the blog.

During the halcyon days of integrity, three broad conceptions prevailed. The first conception understands integrity in terms of coherence between words and actions, or what we could simply call behavioural consistency. A person of integrity both talks the talk and walks the walk. We would call this ‘coherence between principles and action’; an example of which would be, say, proper promise-keeping, which involves consistency between an espoused value (encapsulated by the promise) and an actual displayed value (in keeping it). Integrity of this kind is meant to act as a safety valve against hypocrisy and dishonesty.

The second, and slightly more demanding, conception of integrity demands motivational wholeness of the person. What is required here – in what is perhaps the most typically endorsed modern conception – is not only coherence between espoused and exhibited values but also motivational unity (‘self-integration’); that is, unity (and even mutual support) between the various psychological drivers eliciting action. Theorists used to talk about this feature in terms of ‘internal coherence’ or of ‘a reflexively established and endorsed life plan with a deliberate pattern’. A common phrase homing in on a crucial contour of integrity, on this conception, is ‘authenticity’ or ‘being true to oneself’. Yet, because authenticity seems attainable in default of any strong commitments (i.e. being authentic to one’s own non-committal attitude or to an attitude only grounded in fleeting expediency), various writers foreground the need for the person of integrity to ‘stand for something’, where that ‘something’ refers to principles and values that are substantively rich and worthy of spirited defence. The judgement that the value for which the person of integrity stands is non-shallow and non-artificial must not only be made by the person herself for herself, but also seem recognisable and plausible to any ‘reasonable person’. The opposite of the integrated person here is one who is fragmented, disintegrated, or simply soft and rudderless.

The third broad conception of integrity may seem to some to be merely an implication of the first and second, but others would see it as going beyond the first two in terms of demandingness. On this conception, integrity refers to a specific psycho-moral faculty that secures the non-betrayal of our deepest commitments, especially in times of adversity, and renders us uncompromising at exactly the points where we are most tempted to compromise, for instance in light of utilitarian reasoning about promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘clean-hands’ understanding of integrity, or the one that prevents us from having ‘one thought too many’ when we should categorically draw a line in the sand.  This third conception seems to presuppose that integrity will not normally be called upon except in situations of extreme moral challenge in which temptations to succumb to utilitarian maximisation threaten to undermine the core of our psycho-moral identity.

There is a science-fiction parable which illustrates this thought nicely. It is about an alien who feeds on the humiliation of human beings by letting them do things they would otherwise never have done. Surprised why he has never been targeted by the alien, the protagonist in the story is given the explanation that he is an ‘immune’: a person who cannot be humiliated in this way because there is nothing that he would not have done, under some possible circumstances, anyway. The upshot of the story is, obviously, that the protagonist is the only person among the alien’s potential victims who is completely lacking in the virtue of integrity (on the third conception).

Here are finally two questions for readers. Why has integrity fallen out of favour of late? Is it because we live in a post-integrity, post-truth world where even philosophers and educators have given up on the hope of helping people to integrate their lives in a virtuous way? The second question is aimed at admirers of Aristotelian virtue ethics and character education. Why is there no specific virtue of integrity in Aristotle’s system? There are obviously related virtues, like truthfulness (as a moral virtue) and phronesis or practical wisdom (as an intellectual virtue), but none that is typically translated as ‘integrity’. Does this mean that this presumed virtue is actually surplus to requirements in a cogent and coherent system of the virtues – or was Aristotle just mistaken?

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson is Deputy 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

 

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