Character education and social justice

by Gary Walsh

As character education continues to gain influence in educational policy in the UK and elsewhere, it becomes more and more important to ensure it receives adequate critique. Having worked in the field of character education and studied the research base for a number of years, I have concluded that the legitimacy of traditional approaches to character education should be critically examined from a social justice perspective. The purpose of this post is to explain why I think this is the case. In doing so I hope this proves a useful point of reflection for any interested practitioners or researchers.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues make the grand and enticing claim that character is “the basis for human and societal flourishing“. This is somewhat alluring because it sounds empowering and inclusive: the implicit promise is that we can all flourish no matter who we are.

However, this claim underplays the role of social, political and economic contexts and the structural forces of inequality. Proponents of character education appear to concede that social context matters, but they conclude that it is more pragmatic to change individuals than it is to change society (Arthur et al, 2017). Far from being empowering and inclusive, this approach risks disempowerment: it obscures the role of democracy and distracts from social justice issues such as tackling poverty, food insecurity and health inequalities, while concealing the pernicious roles of power, privilege and prejudice. These are some of the REAL problems that prevent human flourishing – it is not about deficiencies in the moral character of children.

At the same time, the claim of character education is presented in moral terms, which implicitly suggests that such a forensic focus on the individual can be somehow morally justifiable. The irony is that this risks perpetuating what Zygmunt Bauman called Moral Blindness: the tendency to forget about the causes and impact of everyday suffering. As Nel Noddings points out:

The courage of a warrior may, for example, be so admired that members of the society do not think (or dare) to criticize war itself.” (Noddings 2012: 167)

The question needing asked here is whether it is legitimate to examine the moral character of individuals without also examining that of social arrangements. Unfortunately, any hope that the character education movement treats this question seriously may well be misplaced. Traditional character education offers little critique of the structural inequalities that erode the very values it purports to uphold. Nor does it explicitly recognise critical political analysis, activism or tackling the structural causes of inequality as examples of virtue or citizenship. It is also important to reflect on the fact that character education tends to gain appeal at times of economic crises or social unrest, and to ask why that might be the case. For example, in the UK, character education made a sudden return to educational policy in the wake of the London riots in 2011, where the resulting recommendations concentrated largely on fixing the moral characters of young people.

Character education teaches classical virtues such as honesty, gratitude and humility. This may sound at first like a reasonable endeavour, but a critical social justice perspective quickly reveals the concerning implications of this approach. 1 in 4 children in the UK are currently living in poverty – do they really need lessons in gratitude and humility? What and whose purposes are being served? The work of Nel Noddings raises the possibility that focusing on virtues such as honesty can result in children experiencing less caring relationships in the classroom. For instance, imagine a child lies to their teacher because they feel afraid or they want to hide something. If the teacher’s attention is focused on developing the child’s virtue of honesty, they could miss what might be really happening for that child.

Character education seeks to promote compassion by encouraging ‘service’ to others. Digging deeper into this reveals that service is framed as an apolitical, charitable ‘good deed’. To help understand why this is problematic, Westheimer and Kahne (2004) provide a useful framework to help us understand different kinds of citizens that education typically tries to produce. They refer to citizens who are a) personally responsible, b) participatory, and c) justice oriented. The authors illustrate the various kinds of citizen by theorising how each might respond to a humanitarian crisis that involves victims experiencing hunger:

“…if participatory citizens are organizing the food drive and personally responsible citizens are donating food, justice oriented citizens are asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover.” (Westheimer and Kahne 2004: 4)

They find that personally responsible citizenship, typified by a character education approach, is the most common approach pursued by schools, while justice-oriented citizenship receives the least attention.

(Incidentally, the issue of using moralistic language with reference to food banks in the UK came into sharp focus recently when Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was severely criticised for saying that charitable donations to food banks “is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are”.)

This analysis provides some possible directions for a ‘socially just’ approach to character development. Such an approach could involve calling out the immorality and social violence of political decisions that leave people destitute. It could seek to support the ways in which people, relationships and communities can be nurtured, cared for and loved. It could draw on resilience research which demonstrates that resilience is not a character trait, but a developmental process that is strengthened by reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors. It could recognise the role of positive attachments and the impact of adverse childhood experiences. It could be based on politically hard-edged concepts such as human rights, social justice and participative democracy. It could draw on social theories such as Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach, Bourdieu’s Habitus & Cultural Capital, Fromm’s Social Character, integrative views of identity or ecological understandings of agency.

In other words, ‘character’ could be re-constructed as a dynamic concept that describes the qualities of people while also describing the relationship with our social world. If we are to ask ‘what kind of people’ the world needs, is it not incumbent on us to also ask ‘what kind of world’ people need? Unfortunately, character education has yet to make any notable moves in this direction. These theoretical possibilities are ignored in favour of something altogether more esoteric: Aristotelian virtue ethics. Herein lies the ideological rub. Aristotle endorsed slavery, describing slaves as living tools. While this can be brushed off as a trite objection or simply a ‘sign of the times’ in Ancient Greece, it is important to point out that Aristotle’s theory of a flourishing society depended on oppression, elitism and authoritarianism. Oppression was required at home too: it was the (superior) man’s job to instil character in the (inferior) woman and children. 

Does one person’s flourishing require another person’s suffering? The award-winning short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, is a powerful reflection on that very question and is well worth a read. Working towards social justice, in my view, involves a commitment to the idea that human flourishing is for all of us, not just a few of us. Aristotle seemed to have particular ideas about who should flourish and who should not. 2500 years later, this remains the battleground of what we now refer to as social justice.

It seems fair to ask, therefore, what the character education movement has to say about social justice, and whether character education assumes that injustice, inequality and oppression are inevitable (and therefore acceptable), given its philosophical antecedents. In response to such challenges (see Winton 2012 for a good example), proponents of character education refuse to work WITH such criticisms, trying instead to deflect them as mere myths. Is this lack of acknowledgement an adequate response? Surely, as in all educational efforts, self-critique and a commitment to the principle of ‘do no harm’ should prevail. 

At the very least, we should be guided by the available evidence. Simply put, there is no firm evidence to establish credibility for the claim that the possession of virtues is the basis of human flourishing. Neither is there firm evidence to say that traditional character education interventions improve the life outcomes of children and young people. There is good evidence, however, showing not only that character education has ‘no significant impact’ but that it can have detrimental impacts too (Social and Character Development Research Consortium, 2010).

The legitimacy of character education can and should be questioned on the grounds of efficacy and even moreso on the grounds of ideology. Social Justice education offers a narrative that is fundamentally different to that of character education in ways that are important to understand. It suggests that the ways in which we should seek to change ourselves for the better are not to be found by aiming to ‘be’ a certain way (virtuous or otherwise). The challenge of social justice involves deciding what we refuse to become – much like the ones who walk away from Omelas. It suggests that we change ourselves by changing the world around us. Perhaps this is a more worthy starting point for our attention and efforts.

6 thoughts on “Character education and social justice”

  1. This is pretty much spot on with our thinking here at Lifeworlds Gary, and I could not agree with you more about the need for models (rooted in social justice – though I have issue with the appropriation of that language by certain organisations) that explore as much what we want to move away from as what we want to move towards. the character lobby (and let’s be honest, that is what a lot of it is) speaks from an often privileged position and promotes an individualistic and divisive anaesthetic to the real challenges that are evident in what we call Bigger Than Self issues.
    I am starting work this week with 19 schools that have come together for a year long voyage of dialogue and exploration to unravel some of the challenges in exactly the issues that you raise. This started because they rejected the imposition of what they considered to be politically motivated brainwashing and instead sought a space and the time for an authentic and robust dialogue around values, character, education, learning, leadership and cultural shift. I welcome your contribution through this article on top of previous writings and look forward to sharing it with them.

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  2. International Baccalaureate has a strong commitment to ‘service as action’; discovery through the curriculum of something that annoys the learner, with the encouragement and expectation to go and do something about it. The ideal is empowerment of the learner, where they automatically think critically and creatively about what can be done, and then go and do it. Outcomes being more autonomy, empowerment, enhanced empathy, and more thoughtful emotional intelligence. Not sure where this fits in with your position….

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  3. Interesting critique and for the most part very close to the mark. However, there is a bidirectional relationship between a socially just society and a person committed to social justice that should not be over looked. Social justice, inclusion and equity is the ideal of our humanity and at the root of a sustainable democracy. Therefore, schools should be at the heart of the transformations required for communities and socities to reach and sustain these ideals. Yet the pressing question remains; what comes first? We can not have a socially just society without socially just citizens and vice versa. Schools can be transformational one person at a time and then those people can build a socially just, inclusive and equitable society. Schools can be at the heart of the transformation at the grassroots level—one person at a time. Therefore, developing promoting and sustaining a committment to being respectful , responsible, fair, caring, honest and trustworthy are Charactistics that can be taught within a humanistic approach that underpins the development of socially just people, communities and socities. However, schools must first be socially just and avoid deliverying culturally centric moral education within a behaviouristic framework or inequalities and social injustices will persist.

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