To some ears, the word ‘character’ no doubt still evokes cold showers and a stiff upper lip. But these familiar associations are both too old-fashioned and not old-fashioned enough. Not old-fashioned enough because the proper development of character is at the centre of a line of ethical thought that goes back to Aristotle. Too old-fashioned, because character is becoming an increasingly prominent theme in public policy discussions—see for instance the work of the Studio Schools Trust on developing character capabilities or The Foundation Years, the report by Frank Field MP on parenting as an instrument for combating social deprivation (click here to hear Field discussing the study).
This growing list is now joined by a new Demos report, The Character Inquiry, launched this week. Here Aristotle rubs shoulders with attachment theory and the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning initiative. Even JF Roxburgh—headmaster of Stowe in the 1920s and 30s and who defined a good (male) character as “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck”—gets a sympathetic nod. But while policy-makers may hope to draw inspiration from Demos’s findings, they will first have to acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding the notion of “good character” implicit in this report.
In The Character Inquiry, “good character” is code for a set of traits including empathy, self-regulation (the capacity to control one’s emotions appropriately), self-direction, and “application” (the capacity to stick to tasks and to defer gratification). There is much here to please Aristotle: “self-direction” sounds rather like Aristotle’s notion of practical wisdom, and when Aristotle said “Both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity… may be felt both too much and too little…but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right aim … is characteristic of excellence,” he was talking about the value of self-regulation.
However, it goes without saying that this is not a philosophy paper. The Demos researchers’ list of traits are tightly enough defined for their relations to various social outcomes to be at least roughly measurable—as they surely need to be if the notion of character is to earn its place in public policy proposals. Analysing results from a 2004 study, for example, the report strikingly claims that poor…