(Whose?) Character Education

James Q. Wilson
A little while back, David Brooks, from his usual column in the New York times, praised a recently-deceased political scientist, James Q. Wilson – an academic most famous for his “broken window” theory of crime. Wilson, a professor at Harvard for most of his working life, had a larger impact that that single theory, though; the core of Wilson is his writings on character, says Brooks.

‘When Wilson began looking at social policy, at the University of Redlands, the University of Chicago and Harvard, most people did not pay much attention to character. The Marxists looked at material forces. Darwinians at the time treated people as isolated products of competition. Policy makers of right and left thought about how to rearrange economic incentives. “It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind,” he once recalled.’

And later in the NYT piece:
‘When Wilson wrote about character and virtue, he didn’t mean anything high flown or theocratic. It was just the basics, befitting a man who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1940s: Behave in a balanced way. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Cooperate. Be decent. He did not believe that virtue was inculcated by prayer in schools. It was habituated by practicing good manners, by being dependable, punctual and responsible day by day.’

Many school boards (and certainly many independent schools) have been in the embrace of character education for some time now, and – good or bad – some thanks goes to Wilson. Many fine schools have used the discourse of character to redefine their programs and restructure their school cultures. Some hold celebrations of one particularly important character trait each month.

Ontario, in particular, has turned to it in the past decade or so. As a jurisdiction with over 12 million people, one that spends a lot of money on education, and is possessed of many well-respected university faculties of education, Ontario’s influence (in Canada and more broadly) is weighty. And on this issue, it has led.

But an examination of the question is surely complicated. After all, if Wilson discounts ‘Marxist’ (though certainly more than Marxist) ideas of materialism, we’re left with little to explain divergent crime stats besides cultural and character matters. People steal not because of inequity, but because of personal failing? This might be so (I doubt it, but it’s not logically impossible), but as casual supporters of character education we often forget about the consequences.

Then there is the question of whose character – from which culture should we find the appropriate character traits and attributes? The Ontario government writes, “Character development is the deliberate effort to nurture the universal
attributes upon which schools and communities find consensus.” Character development is a-cultural, they say.

Are noble character traits universal, as the Government of Ontario suggests? In the words of Wilson, what does being ‘decent’ mean – and does it mean the same thing to all people? If contemporary character development isn’t religious education (something both Wilson and secular school authorities suggest), then how do we explain its similarity to Protestant values? I was raised with such values, and do admire them. But it seems hard to explain its coherence with a very sacred ideal: equity. Indeed, “respect for diversity” is another heading in the same curriculum document.

Is it possible that students who come from some cultures express respect differently than our own? That they might manifest as lacking in character, when other forces might be at play? Is there a tendency, a conservative one at that, to blame kids for things beyond their control – either material or cultural? (In this case, independent schools are on more solid ground by virtue of the choice involved.)

What would it mean, in real practice, to achieve the following government mandate: “The multiple perspectives that exist within our communities demonstrate the need for school boards to be increasingly responsive to the needs and aspirations of their diverse communities.”

The general consensus – and the easy answer – is to ask the community itself to identify attributes to reinforce and inculcate. But that presumes several things that might not be true: first, that the community speaks with one voice; second, that the voices heard at meetings represent all voices; and third, that the community is right. Where I grew up, the community was often vocally opposed to gay rights. It was a place where in the local Santa Claus parade, one ‘float’ was a man in blackface in a white Ford Bronco with a sign on the side: “OJ’s Back for Christmas.” This was 1995. That community, at that time, often showed poor values. Some of us would have benefitted from a defence from community norms.

I think of Catholic schools in Ontario and their discomfort with homosexual relationships. Is being gay (or expressing it at prom, say) bad character? If so, says who? And if not, what do we say to the folks who are upset by an acceptance of gay relationships? The complication arises here: it is easy to merely assign a judgment to behaviour in accordance with a shared understanding. But when various factors are at play – community values, the Constitution, school board directives – and when a ‘shared understanding’ is quite unlikely, any declaration that character matters is easy seems somewhat foolish.

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