How is it possible for a heterogeneous society that disagrees about basic values to reach consensus on what constitutes character education? James Arthur, Canterbury Christ Church University, defines character education as a specific approach to morals and values education that is linked to citizenship education. It has returned to the educational agenda in Great Britain after having been largely neglected for many years, he reports.
Conservative governments as well as the current Labour government have extended their control over school curricula and recently introduced compulsory citizenship education. The character and virtues the government seeks to promote through schools are pragmatic, linked to raising student achievement, meeting the needs of the new economy and promoting democratic participation. The vision avoids explicit directives, and there is no explanation of its theoretical basis.
Arthur contends that the aim of all general education throughout history has been to form character and produce good citizens. He writes that the goals of character education are vague and there is uncertainty as to how it should be implemented in schools. American educational groups have also sought to identify a generally accepted body of values.
William Glasser wrote that “certain moral values can be taught in school if the teaching is restricted to principles about which there is essentially no disagreement in our society.” In Britain the values that underpin the school curriculum are that education should reaffirm “our commitment to the virtues of truth, justice, honesty, trust and sense of duty.” But this curriculum also aims to develop principles for distinguishing between right and wrong, and to promote self-esteem and emotional well-being.
The content of character education is being derived from agreement on particular values rather than a particular philosophy of education. Although character education is a growing movement in Britain, there is no unity of understanding. The goal of the movement appears to be to develop certain values or principles that guide students’ behavior and decision- making within a democratic society.
It appears to be a political rather than educational movement. Increasingly in Britain’s modern, secular society it is supposed that moral education is the responsibility of the schools rather than of parents. This new and radical education policy is that character education is linked to both raising student achievement and meeting the needs of the emerging new economy of the information age. Character is connected to the political system through schooling.
Arthur concludes that we seem to be attempting to teach a list of virtues that are not based on personal beliefs but on community agreement, in order to reach a common public morality. The reasons for these virtues are based on vastly different religious and private convictions.
What emerges is a list of shared values to which most members of the community will be committed. Arthur is critical of this approach to character education, believing it is “essentially an unsatisfactory amalgam of liberal, values-clarification, and cognitive-development strategies that are used to fulfill neo-liberal and conservative projects in the classroom.”
“The Re-Emergence of Character Education in British Education Policy”, British Journal of Educational Studies, Volume 53, Number 3, September 2005, pp. 239-254.
Published in ERN October 2005 Volume 18 Number 8