England will become a ‘global leader
’ in teaching character and grit, education secretary Nicky Morgan said.
Speaking at the London Festival of Education, Martin Robinson
, author of Trivium 21c
, wondered if ‘Grit and Resilience have replaced Matthew Arnold’s Sweetness and Light.’ He feared a centrally-dictated definition of what comprises ‘character’.
Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, thought schools scrapping anti-bullying policies
would encourage resilient pupils. They were too coddled, she said. Judith Suissa, reader in philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, thought this was ‘ridiculous’. She was concerned the stress on grit and resilience was telling teachers their role was not to encourage children to discuss ‘what’s wrong with society’ but to provide them with ‘grit and resilience to cope with poverty’.
Peter Hyman, head of School 21 in London, also rejected Fox’s argument: his school didn’t contain ‘cotton-wool kids’ but children ‘showing true grit by coping’ with difficult backgrounds. School 21 put great stress on communication: oracy was at the heart what they did.
Controversy over the teaching of character is not a modern trait.
In Aristophanes' play, The Clouds
, written in the Fifth Century BCE, two characters, Right and Wrong, debate how ‘Athens’ boys in bygone years’ were taught. The ‘future of Learning’ is at stake – and good old Greek Values. Right is asked to speak first because, the Leader says, Right’s education fostered ‘The glorious old traditions of our nation.’
Athenian youth is too soft, Right, says. In the old days they went to school with no coat even when it was ‘snowing confetti’. They were ‘seen and not heard’ and walked with modesty and decorum. They learned traditional songs; they were disciplined like those who fought at Marathon. They never took hot baths or hung about market squares. Sessions at the gym ensured they were ‘sleek and healthy’.
This being Aristophanes, Right becomes distracted as he tells chaste youths never to oil themselves below the belt and ‘dreamily’ he thinks of…
Wrong hits back. In a parody of the Socratic Method, he ties Right in knots until Right admits defeat. Wrong is charged with educating the young Pheidippides whose father, Strepsiades (meaning ‘Twister’), wants him taught how to speak out of both sides of his mouth. Wrong can do this well. The Chorus sings a warning:
‘You’ve sowed the wind, and we can see/Your harvest will the whirlwind be.’
Aristophanes’ character Right would have supported education for grit. He would have agreed with Claire Fox about lack of resilience in the young. But Fox also gave a warning: the approved character traits - grit, determination, singlemindedness – can be double-edged. They were shown in abundance in Jihadi John. And Martin Robinson feared the emphasis on character education combined the ‘two worst traits of education...Utopia and Utility: Utopian desire for the ‘uber-character’ and the utilitarian desire for the optimum worker.’