The dangers of ‘character education’ in universities

Schools and universities are increasingly looking at how improving personalities can boost social mobility. But in doing so, they may be forced to choose between teaching what is helpful, and what is true, says David Matthews

April 28, 2016
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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. 

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Reader's comments (5)

I disagree that a resilient attitude in the face of rejection is to turn the other cheek. On the contrary, it's exactly the opposite. It's to fight your corner. But it takes other character traits to learn the battles to fight and how best to fight them. In any case, a person with all-round employability – of which character and social capital are importune, but far from the only, components – won't need to pick themselves after rejection. They're less likely to be rejected in the first place – with or without social advantage. While social advantage helps a lot, in the face of a better candidate, it may not be enough to secure the job nor to help you keep it, let alone succeed in it. Indeed, there are plenty of situations where an employer would be better off employing someone more like their clients or customers. For all his Eton background, it's hard to imagine Boris Johnson would have got far as a social worker or as a civil engineer working with construction contractors. Social advantage is unfair, pervasive and persistent, but the way to tackle it as an HE system, as a society and as individuals is not to simply crow that life should be more equal. We need to ask what practical steps we can take to make it more equal. Trying to ensure that everyone gets access to the same self-improving opportunities – albeit through different channels – is one practical thing we can do. That absolutely does NOT mean that we ought to put 'character education' on any curriculum. 'Teaching' it is as effective as telling someone how to knit, rather than showing them. We learn character traits experientially and the challenge for the HE sector is to find opportunities within the curriculum and outside it in the broader student experience where student can have opportunities to develop their emotional education in a reflective and challenging way.
Great points I would only add that what you suggest in your last paragraph is an interpretation of soem ofrom of curriculum, but I'm nitpicking.
I read both articles on "character education" by the author, and from what I've learned about growth mindset and grit is that the author's examination of the concepts and their applications are far too cursory for a (grittier) discussion or analysis of developing students' intellectual skills. I am unsure why the author has focused on growth mindset as some panacea for social mobility, because that is not Dweck's purpose. She was curious to learn why some students embraced the challenge of learning over others. Her research led to the development of the "growth mindset" (juxtaposed against the "fixed mindset"). Growth mindset gives academia an exceptionally powerful tool in how we teach and advise our students, how we conduct assessment of learning and offer feedback, and how we can encourage self-directed intellectual curiosity and effortful achievement. Again, growth mindset wasn't developed as an idea to end social inequality; however, Mr Rich provides a good analysis regarding social capital in regards to the author's articles on "character education", which is a new term to me, particularly in relation to Dweck's research.
About a decade ago, an American group swept through southern Ontario, Canada, with a massive campaign to have organizations - schools, public libraries, municipal governments and so on - undertake to become "character communities." I forget the "character traits" they were peddling, but words such as honesty, integrity, optimism, empathy and so on come readily to mind. The "character community movement" was wildly successful at signing up new affiliates. I was appalled! Each of the components of a "good character" was relentlessly positive. There was no room for words such as criticism, analysis or solidarity. All virtue was individualized, none was collective; all virtue was private, none was public. If anyone had wanted to draw up a list of citizen/consumer values, you wouldn't need to go further. Every Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturers' Association, Discount Department Store chain or Financial Enterprise would be thrilled if all their employees/customers were filled to the brim with these cookie-cutter "values." Governments of all political stripes could not ask for a more contented electorate. This lot is even worse. Let us at least recognize that the function of these exercises is inherently (often explicitly) ideological. These so-called character traits have inherent political content. Adopt them all and you are guaranteed to be a compliant consumer, a productive worker and - above all - a complacent citizen, willing to accept any policy from either the great public sector or the great private sector corporations without systemic complaint and, when ordered, to show grit in happily doing your part. Problems? Of course there will be problems, but the solutions will always be a matter of encouraging optimism and enthusiasm, setting a good example and helping others to find the way. Corruption? Display honesty and hope for the best. Environmental degradation? Be sure to recycle and cut down on wasteful packaging. Poverty? Encourage poor people to attend schools and try harder. It's allegedly all a matter of getting people to be and to do their best. We've seen it before from the Hitler Youth to the Young Pioneers ... this is just a bit more subtle and comes with an assured "happy face" to soften the inevitable blows.
Again, I don't see the connection to "growth mindset" here. Growth mindset is an intentional attitude toward making an effort at what you do and persevering against adversity. There are many excellent "character traits" that should be taught. Case in point, much of classical/ancient philosophy is so-called character education, which forms the basis or starting point of many higher ed. liberal arts educational traditions. If we could only be so lucky to have the majority of our students embodying growth mindset and the "virtues" associated with classical philosophy, including critical analysis. To address the points above: I agree that it is problematic when the politics of education supersedes pedagogy. But consumerist education has been the norm since the expansion of education after World War II, anyway, so "character education" isn't changing much in that regard.