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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.

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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.

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.

Ethical Consumption and the Challenges of the Virtuous Shopper

There was public disquiet when a BBC investigation revealed exploited child refugees from war-torn Syria were being used to make clothes for major British stores.

The “sweatshop” factories in Turkey were reportedly using children as young as 15 to work 12 hours a days, ironing garments for sale. Some workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals, without adequate protection, during the spraying of jeans.

One of the high street chains at the centre of the exposé insisted ethical trading was “fundamental” to its practices and said suppliers were required to comply with its principles relating to global sourcing, which includes the treatment of employees. The notion of ethical consumption has become increasingly important as it represents “an expression of the individual’s moral judgment in his or her purchase behaviour”.

The story last October was the latest in a series of scandals to hit the clothing trade, the reputations of electronics firms also being tarnished by links to child labour, including Apple’s supply chain in China. This hugely emotive issue goes to the heart of the fierce debate about ethical consumption and ethical shopping.

I happen to come from China, which has been hit by allegations of child labour, and it would appear that, from a UK perspective at least, two moral philosophical approaches are observed in relation to the controversy.

There is the deontological approach, which considers if an action is based on the right principles; and there is consequentialism, which looks at the best consequences, or outcomes, of an action.

If one follows the rule-based deontological approach, consumers are advised to boycott products made by child labour because the exploitation of young people per se is wrong. However, consequentialists argue that boycotting “unethical” clothes effectively puts children out of work and cuts off a vital source of family income, the cash being required for food and shelter. Working in a sweatshop, as abhorrent as it seems, is arguably preferable to starvation and destitution.

But what if a third approach is possible? This, I believe, is where virtue ethics comes in and throws a welcome light on the controversy surrounding ethical consumption.

A virtue ethics approach asks important questions such as: “What kind of person/consumer do I want to become?” The emphasis is on exercising the virtues and advancing human flourishing.

In the case of child labour, a virtue ethics approach appreciates the need for compassion and generosity as well as the context of the action or event. Rather than being directed by rigid deontological rules or consequential outcomes, virtue ethics allows the consumer to be sympathetic to the child worker’s predicament. In this case, an instant boycott of the clothing is less likely to be advocated.

However, this does not mean a virtue ethics approach will continue to encourage the practice of child labour without further action. It does not give carte blanche to exploitation and child endangerment.

On the contrary, a virtue ethics approach locates the child labour situation within the wider social context and views the purchase action as part of the overall life. It recognizes the merits of ethical consumption as well as the limits of it; it seeks to understand the cause of the issues from an institutional level as well the specific context; and it strives to investigate the best possible solution from a fundamental perspective.

Crucially, the virtue ethics approach is non-judgemental; and it is motivated by love, patience and tolerance.

A virtue ethics approach considers the complexity of ethical consumption, the causes of child labour and involves an appreciation of people as human beings with human characteristics. It allows us to see that ethical consumption cannot be reduced to simple rules or a calculation of consequences.

Recently, my mother, who lives in Beijing, visited me in Birmingham and bought me a bag. The gift cost £110, a lot of money. What if the bag was made from child labour but my mother did not know this?

For me, the bag symbolises her love for me. I used to bring my lunch to work in a shopping bag that cost £2 and my mother said: “It doesn’t suit your professional image now. You work for The Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham. You are a research fellow. You need to maintain a professional standard.” I told her I had lots of bags and did not need another one, but she insisted.

Now if you take a deontological approach, the bag is a waste of money because I don’t really need one. If you look at consequentialism, it is probably bad for the environment.

But if you look beyond that as a human person, this bag is from my mum, who flew all the way from China to England and wanted to give me a gift. It reminds me of her every day I use it. I feel warmth in my heart. That is love. Deontology and consequentialism do not have the capacity to appreciate such love.

Virtue ethics “understands” my mum’s heart. This was an act of selfless love – she wouldn’t spend so much money on herself on a bag and it shows her understanding of my work role and her respect.

Now when I think about the contentious issue of child labour and visualise the three moral philosophies, I see three images. On the left is the judge who makes a ruling based on unbending law and regulations. On the right, I see the image of a Chinese mother whose young son works in a factory miles from their village – she has deep wrinkles but there is hope in her eyes.

In the middle, there is a wise man smiling at me and saying in a gentle voice: “Be slow in anger; and abound in steadfast love.”

Dr Yan Huo

Research Fellow

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Character Education in Poland: A Teacher’s Reflections

Contemporary Polish education is at an ideological crossroads, attempting to construct new ways of thinking, and new concepts of education and teaching in line with contemporary understanding of young people’s development.

Since gaining independence in 1989, Poland has been reforming its education system to help young people adapt to the new world order. The changes in pedagogical sciences triggered by the political transformation in Poland have raised many questions, including the issue of character education. For example, do schools have the authority to teach character and impose a system of values on pupils?

An important cause of the difficulties faced by Polish teachers is the lack of unified view on the essence of the human person and educational ideologies. There is some influence from liberalism, moral relativism, hedonism, and utilitarianism on the nature of education. However, without taking a coherent position on understanding the essence of the human person and critiquing the accepted view of the education system, we cannot meaningfully analyse problems of contemporary education.

In order to better understand the potential for character education in Poland, I have identified some pluralistic and competing educational ideologies:

  1. Conservative ideologies. According to these ideologies, educational processes are understood as cultural transmission. In this vision, high positions in the hierarchy of values are taken by tradition, religion, a specific ethical attitude, obedience and a sense of belonging (patriotism). In Poland, a symptom of the domination of this ideology was the introduction of religious education to schools in 1989.
  1. 2. Liberal ideologies. The agent’s subjectivism in making, among other things, free moral choices, dominates in this option. In this ideology, we have to endorse anti-fundamentalism and openness to distinctiveness. Freedom in this ideology is only limited by the agreement not to disturb one another’s freedom. In Poland, such a form of thinking in terms of emancipatory pedagogic is present after the change of the social system.
  1. Social and Postmodern Ideologies. This is basically anti-pedagogy, in which the teacher is an observer, and does not interfere with a student’s self-development; there is no reason why he should interfere with it, if he does not know what is good or bad – this is the main exemplification of this ideology. In the Polish culture, such a form of thinking in education is partly present, particularly in pedagogical and sociological narrations.

Every education reform in Poland has emphasised the consolidation of values at all stages of education. Character education is understood in Poland as the endorsement of learning about nature, culture and society as well as participation in their transformations. It helps pupils achieve comprehensive physical and mental development, the development of their abilities, interests, attitudes and beliefs, as well as the acquisition of relevant professional qualifications. The aim of character education is to prepare a child, and then a young person, for autonomous functioning in the world of values.

Poland has a rich tradition of teaching, and at the centre of the learning process is always the person who, as part of the education process, is taught to distinguish good from evil, and thus enrich his or her experience.

Unfortunately, education reforms in Poland are often purely political. Educational issues and curriculum changes are not consulted with teachers and parents, and are not supported by existing research. An example is the newest education reform, prepared in unnecessary haste, which takes effect in September 2017. The assumptions of the reform are not fully known, and very important decisions have been taken by small teams of educators, commissioned by the National Ministry of Education. What can be seen is that the reform of the education system is geared to conservative ideologies where a pupil needs an authority (a teacher) to show the individual what is good and what is wrong, according to the acknowledged standards, because alone a pupil would stray.

This interpretation might appear to be an educational vision at its most natural, as it appeals to what happened and what turned out to be successful. The school is represented as the institution of fundamentalist thinking, in which teachers are applicators of top-down assumptions. That is why the absolutisation of values dominates in this conception – an assumption that seems to grate with the very idea of character education, at least along the Aristotelian lines suggested by the Jubilee Centre.

We will have to wait a few years to see whether the changes will be for the benefit of young people and affect their character and value system. As a teacher, I remain full of optimism and trust in other teachers and their positive impact on the student. However, there is no sign of a coherent policy of character education making its way into the Polish educational system. Moreover, the recently-introduced curriculum lacks content that would stress the importance of tolerance and acceptance of other nations and cultures – for example, the school literary canon is based on works that promote national values where “the other option” is shown as an anthropological curiosity.

I believe that education should help young people develop a sense of responsibility and patriotism. A school, as an institution, should provide pupils with every opportunity for their development and prepare them to fulfill the obligations of family and civic life in accordance with the principles of solidarity, democracy, tolerance, justice and freedom.

At the same time, the school ought to make pupils understand the importance of being open to the values of Europe and the rest of the world.

Marcin Gierczyk, Doctor of Social Science in Pedagogy, is a visiting Teaching Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

A Personal Touch Helps Students Navigate the Minefield of Professional Virtues

Digital platforms and online teaching are revolutionising the delivery of educational programmes throughout the higher education sector.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are one of the latest developments and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ own online course on character education has had nearly 20,000 registered learners.

Such platforms allow institutions to engage with new learners in innovative ways and offer flexible approaches to teaching outside face-to-face formats.

However, research being conducted by the Jubilee Centre suggests trainee teachers, medics and lawyers still value traditional teaching sessions when it comes to understanding the complexities and value of virtue-based practice.

We have also discovered that tutors like to be involved with delivering interventions that seek to promote virtue literacy among the next generation of professionals. In fact, some university staff revealed their current programmes do not feature elements relating to ethics, which might surprise the wider public who typically view, and expect, GPs, solicitors and teachers to be role models.

The views of students and tutors towards virtue-based teaching materials was gauged during the Centre’s project Interventions in Trainee and Student Teachers, Lawyers and Doctors. The interventions centre on a course that seeks to enable trainees and early career professionals to understand what it means to be a virtuous professional and serve others in their discipline.

More than 1,400 law, medicine and teaching trainees either experienced or piloted the course and the data, including pre- and post-course surveys, is being processed. The surveys should indicate if the students’ ethical decision-making has become more virtues-based as a result of the interventions.

The courses are profession-specific, so key content relating to ethical dilemmas – a particularly popular element of the interventions – is tailored to practical scenarios that might be confronted on hospital wards, in the courtroom and the classroom. All the courses feature a general introduction to character, virtue ethics and phronesis.

The research team’s expectation was that tutors would send their students a link to the online course and then effectively take a back seat. Discussion boards are built into the programme, so students can engage in online conversations with fellow trainees about ideas and issues as they arise. The course also features animated films to create an immersive atmosphere.

Interestingly, a significant number of tutors said they would like to be more directly involved with delivery of the interventions. Some tutors even asked Jubilee Centre researchers to attend teaching sessions as they felt it enriched the students’ experience and added new perspectives to the understanding of virtue-based practice, a concept with which many trainees were unfamiliar.

The enthusiasm of tutors for face-to-face contact was matched by that of the trainees. Students said they liked the films and the interactive message boards, which allow engagement in anonymous online discussions about the issues. But they still like to be “taught” the course as well and wanted to take a “human” approach to an essentially human concern – the ethical practice of professionals.

It would appear that students and trainees are not confident undertaking a course like this entirely online. They like having an expert in the field alongside them to help them navigate the complex issues of character and virtues. For example, at the University of Leicester’s Medical School, 200 trainees took part in the course in class using iPads and had tutors present to offer assistance.

It is clear from our interviews that students feel the course has opened their eyes to the importance of character and virtues in professional life. One trainee teacher said the course was “massively important in education,” adding: “You need to display qualities that children are going to look up to at the end of the day… they are easily influenced and you need to be professional, but at the same time you need to try and be on their level in a way that they don’t think, ‘Oh, this is just another stuffy old bloke who thinks they’re better than me.’”

Participants also highlighted the value of reflective practice to help them understand that their actions have wider implications for others – for the lawyer and the client, the teacher and the pupil, and the GP and the patient.

Why does any of this matter? Well, ask yourself this: if you are a parent, don’t you want your child’s care and education to be entrust to a teacher you know has good character? Don’t our young people deserve at least that?

Dr Binish Khatoon

Research Fellow

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

When “Thank You” is Not Enough

From an early age, children are encouraged to express gratitude and display thanks towards others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – and mind your Ps and Qs.

There are everyday scenarios that fit nicely into the “please and thank you” template, such as ordering a coffee, being served lunch or having a door held open.

But there are also occasions that fall outside the norm, situations that surprise us, perplex us and leave us embarrassed. What are we to do when we are confronted with unexpected acts of kindness?

A friend found herself in such a position during her morning commute into Snow Hill station in Birmingham city centre. It was the chilly depth of a recent cold snap and the office worker – let us call her Sarah – was cursing herself for not having her gloves. The previous day, she left a glove from her favourite pair on the train. She realised just as she was getting off but did not have time to return to the carriage and look for it as the train was preparing to depart.

Twenty-four hours later, Sarah’s train was slowing down to pull into Snow Hill and Sarah got up from her seat. As she got into the slow-moving queue heading towards the train door, she felt someone tug her arm.

Looking back, Sarah saw a dishevelled, unshaven man in an old coat. He was carrying an old supermarket plastic bag and was wearing fingerless gloves. She thought he looked homeless.

The man tried to speak to Sarah but made no sense. She thought he might be drunk, and worried that she was being accosted, she said nothing, turned away in embarrassment and headed towards the door of the carriage.

She walked a few more paces and was close to stepping down to the platform when she was tapped on the shoulder. Fearing the worst, Sarah turned and was confronted by the same man. Again, he made no sense as he tried to speak but this time Sarah realised he had a bad stutter.

Despite her very English discomfort, she held his gaze and realised he was saying: “Your glove. Your glove.”

As the words formed, the man reached down into his tatty bag and withdrew Sarah’s lost glove. He must have seen her the previous day, spotted she had left her glove on her seat, picked it up and kept it with a view to returning it.

Grateful for the stranger’s kindness and slightly ashamed of her own behaviour, and the assumptions she had made, Sarah did the only thing she could do – and said: “Thank you.”

She had never seen the man before, and has not since.

Later that day, as she recounted the story, Sarah said she wished she could have done more than utter two simple words. She had considered giving the man some money, as she thought he was homeless, but decided her action could have been patronising. What if he took offence? Would she offer a “normal” person a cash reward?

She kept repeating: “Thank you wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t enough.”

Evidently, saying “thank you” was inadequate to convey Sarah’s feelings and her sense of gratitude towards a man who, despite facing his own daily trials, had gone out of his way to help someone who to all intents and purposes looked like the model of a successful young professional.

I suspect part of Sarah’s reaction was wound up in the guilt she felt for assuming her fellow passenger on life’s journey into Birmingham was a drunk, a vagrant and possibly a “weirdo.”

In fact, the man might have been all of these things, and none of them. And that, I suppose, is the point. Gratitude cuts across social status and it defies prejudice, awkwardness and isolation.

And if gratitude is the parent of all virtues, as well as being the greatest, it may well be that a stranger on a train can teach us all an important lesson. In our troubled times, we ignore it at our peril.

Richard McComb

Journalist

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