Writing When Someone’s Not Looking: On Character

Last Thursday, I attended a debate-cum-discussion organised by the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. What attracted me to the event wasn’t so much as its title: “Why Character Matters in Education” as the people who were going to speak to it. Tristram Hunt, Nicky Morgan, Estelle Morris and Michael Gove is perhaps as good as a who’s who top 5 of politicians you’d want on this topic, no less having at one point or another shared the position of Secretary of State for Education (or Shadow, as in the case of Hunt).

The interesting perspective, of course, comes from the fact that all four speakers come from the policy point of view, rather than that of the educator. (Yes, Tristram Hunt is a senior lecturer in history at QMUL, but he came to the event wearing his MP / Shadow Secretary hat). And while each speaker offered their own justification of why character mattered in education, a key theme recurred in their respective statements although Estelle Morris perhaps drove it home the most. That theme was of measurability.

In a world where what gets measured effectively does get managed, the speakers lamented the fact that the reason why character development takes a back seat to other matters especially in primary education is that it is not one of the factors upon which performance is measured upon: that is, you can write a test for English, Maths and Science, but  how would you measure character? Leave a £50 note in the corridor to see who turns it in instead of keeping it?

More pertinently, though, would you need to? I understand, coming from a policy-makers’ point of view, that the existence of a construct that could measure character, however incomplete, would allow it to be used as a benchmark and ultimately, be made to count in league tables. Once measurable and measured, we would be able to rank one against another; link pay and rewards to performance in these measures. Once quantified, we lull ourselves into thinking that it is objective; and we then, sometimes without realising it, adjust our behaviour to game the measures in our best interest.

Let’s face it, we are obsessed with ranking everything and anything: from the top holiday destinations to the best universities; from the quality of an education to the best cronuts. As consumers of rankings, we take the end result as is, very rarely questioning the underlying methodology which creates the scores that feed into the ranking system. For some reason, once a number is assigned to something, we assume it is objective, and we take it as a construct of truth.

We forget to inspect the underlying – that when ranking the top ten holiday destinations, we make assumptions about what makes a holiday destination good. Some of these assumptions are quite universal – the absence of a civil war in the country would be an example. But others are quite subjective – the existence of a swimming pool at a hotel would be a plus for some and a minus for others: how would one then incorporate such features into a ranking?

Extending this to something perhaps less trivial – say, the National Student Survey (NSS) scores which feeds into both university rankings and performance or promotion criteria for academic staff. In recent years, one question in that survey asked students whether they thought the course was challenging. For some students, a challenging course was a positive because it brought out the best in them; for others, a challenging course was a negative because it signalled their personal academic deficiencies. So how would you interpet the score for this, when the term ‘challenging’ in itself meant opposite things?

And so, coming back to character -something that we are unable to concretely define: how are we to measure this? In fact, do we need to measure this? Should we even attempt to do so, in the interest of quantitative benchmarks and performance rankings? There surely must be a line when it comes to measuring and ranking; a point at which we must realise that a poorly constructed measure is worse than having no measure at all.

Character is something that is difficult to observe, let alone measure. It borders on some of the more metaphysical things in life, like morality or faith; personal things which are embedded in the essence of who we are. Tristram Hunt quoted John Wooden’s definition of character being what he does when no one is watching – if this were to be upheld, then really character is a) largely unobservable by independent third parties and b) can only be measured by self-reporting; both rather questionable as ‘objective’ measures. (The interesting thing here is that someone of good character would probably be more honest when self-reporting; where as those devoid of it may more likely lie about it, hence creating some interesting constructs).

I speak of this as an academic coming from the branch of economics where attempting to quantify the unquantifiable is our bread and butter: for in accounting this is what we do. We assign values to things, to constructs that we are not too sure of; we make estimates and while we initially live with its limitations, through generally accepted practice (a cornerstone of how accountants operate) we forget and we think we are measuring something, where in actual fact we have only managed to roughly estimate its shadows.

But the very fact that character cannot be measured does not mean it should not be taught. The building of character through various means in education should not be ignored merely because it does not produce something that can be used as a ranking input. It could be argued that our very obsession with ranks and key performance indicators is what has led to the diminishing elements of character education: why invest in an activity that could prove to be detrimental to one’s performance indicators, even if in the long run it may bear worthy fruit?

And the fallout of that? Schoolchildren growing up to be young adults who enter university and subsequently the workplace with a view of attaining excellence at any cost. The proliferation of services where you are able to pay others to write essays for you – a well-known but hard-to-banish phenomenon infiltrating our universities today – is testament to basic economics: where there is demand there will be supply. Unlike cheating in exams, where one runs the risk of being caught red-handed; or plagiarising an essay, where there now exists software that can catch you out; using essay writing services can be harder to detect. There is a higher likelihood that you will be able to get away with it; which is where character then kicks in. At what price, that A you ‘earned’? That 2(1) you ‘delivered’? Nobody is looking, nobody knows – what would you do, asks John Wooden?

If we reach such a state in education – which I personally feel we are tootling towards at high speed- where we do things only because it leads to quantification, then we need to really sit and ask ourselves, to what end is this really education, and to what end is it mere learning? The very soul of education is in its process, and it that process is diluted more and more by money, profit and league tables, then we need to start admitting that we have sold our souls.

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