Academics, take notice: the idea of “character education” may be coming to universities.
In an analysis this week, I’ve looked at calls for universities to try to teach their students resilience and “grit” – the ability to bounce back from failure.
This focus on personality has already taken off in schools. Teachers have shown huge interest in the idea of a “growth mindset”, whereby children don’t believe their abilities are fixed, and that they can improve by stretching themselves.
This agenda has emerged as an explanation for (and solution to) a lack of social mobility. In January this year, the Sutton Trust released a report called A Winning Personality, which found that traits such as confidence, a positive outlook and a sense of being in control of life – funnily enough, traits much more common among those from wealthy backgrounds – gave people a significant career and earnings boost.
In other words: “hey poor kids! If only you were as chipper as those born into great privilege, you might find it a bit easier to get a good job!”
To be fair, the report does acknowledge that schools and universities cannot close this confidence gap simply by teaching students to look on the bright side of life. As the authors depressingly note, “the UK is one of the most economically unequal of the rich countries, and closing many of the gaps we describe will require systemic change beyond the scope of this report”.
Well, quite. And herein lies the problem with teaching young people that through sheer vim and vigour they can achieve anything they want: for an individual, as the Sutton Trust report shows, it’s a beneficial belief to have. But the problem is, in many cases, it’s simply not true.
The extent of meritocracy in the UK is of course highly contested, but a lack of parental wealth can stop a young person dead in their tracks if they want to do an unpaid internship, a PhD that isn’t fully funded, or put down a mortgage deposit – no matter how “gritty” they are.
I’m sure that advocates of character education wouldn’t claim otherwise. Training someone to be resilient isn’t the same as teaching them the world is perfectly fair.
But the question for any universities attempting character education is: how do you engender a positive outlook in students without gliding over the fact that things will be harder, perhaps much harder, for some of them because of their background?
When I spoke to Johnny Rich, chief executive of the universities guide Push and an advocate of teaching resilience, he suggested that it might allow graduates from poorer backgrounds to bounce back from rejection, even if they were passed over in favour of someone who was less qualified but nevertheless had the right accent.
How exactly would we want this rejected student to bounce back? If they simply brushed off the incident and got on with writing their next cover letter without thinking about the deeper injustices at play, then many would see this as a failure of university education, not a success (I’ve no doubt Mr Rich would agree). Society needs people that get angry in the face of unjust hurdles, not just those who stoically carry on.
Certain strains of character education strike me as having more than a passing resemblance to the American dream: the belief that anyone can make it if they work hard enough (incidentally, 32 per cent of Americans in 2016 did not buy this, and believed outside forces were more important than personal effort in determining financial well-being).
The dark flip to the American dream is, of course, a belief that the cause of poverty or failure is laziness. Done badly, there is a risk that character education could smuggle this view uncontested and unanalysed into the minds of students.