Character Education

At a university open day, a parent gestured at her daughter and asked me, “Will she be changed by university?” Feeling reckless, I (BL) replied, “It’ll be a shocking waste of time and money if she isn’t”. I still think that this is the honest answer. Education should be transformative. This is especially true of education in the humanities, because the information we impart is of little practical use and the skills we foster might be developed by other less expensive means. Besides, the skills-and-knowledge side of education requires the student to exercise some virtues—diligence, perseverance, the courage to hazard an opinion in public, the moral strength to admit error, a proper respect for the magister, the confidence to question the magister’s opinion, etc.. This sounds like a lofty list, but anyone who parades at a graduation ceremony must have exercised these virtues to some degree, albeit minimally and cynically. The Hungarian mathematician George Polya wrote that, “Teaching to solve problems is education of the will.” (How to Solve It 2004 p. 94). So even if we confine ourselves to helping our students to perform better on narrow academic tasks, we will be in the business of encouraging them to develop the necessary virtues.

This is not a radical view. Many universities have lists of attributes that their graduates ought to develop as a result of their higher education. Universities that write such lists shy away from the language of virtues, but nevertheless these attributes are excellences of character. On reading some of the lists, one might suspect that these are the excellences of an excellent employee, as specified by business leaders to university senior management. Certainly, the courage to speak the truth to power does not always figure as saliently as one might have hoped. Sometimes, the authors of these lists seem to have mislaid or forgotten the critical function of universities and their graduates. Nevertheless, the graduate attributes are excellences and they are not always written by captains of industry. Harriet Harris led a project to ask staff and students at Edinburgh University what the university is for. One of the outcomes was “A proposal for more broadly conceived graduate attributes that more clearly support character development, social and emotional intelligence, commitment to sustainability.”

For these and other reasons, the notion of character education is enjoying something of a return to favour. It would be well, therefore, to ask why it fell into relative disuse. A satisfying answer would require a comprehensive history of education in the developed world over the past century, but I think part of the answer would be the following. The institutions that were most serious and effective in shaping the characters of pupils and students did so by isolating their charges from the outside world in a way that few people now would countenance. A residential facility in a rural setting allows the educators to control every aspect of the learner’s environment and every waking minute. Brief versions of this are still common practice in adult development from religious preparation to management training. A residential course or retreat allows an ethos to develop even over a few days that encourages excellences in the participants that may not normally find expression. It’s not incidental that Newman made this point in the context of Catholic higher education (The Idea of a University chapter six section nine).

This degree of control raises some obvious dangers and risks, and places enormous responsibility on the shoulders of the educator. In the USA, the advocates of character education are often politically conservative—it’s curious that people who are scornful of social engineering should favour the psychic engineering of individuals. It also presents a practical contradiction to those universities that wish to combine the development of student attributes with breaking down the walls between the university and the rest of society—if Newman is right, it is these very walls that make character development possible. At the same time, reflection on Newman suggests that small residential gatherings may offer an alternative to the picture of philosophy with which we started. Recall that our basic question concerned the virtues on display at departmental seminars. Why do the professional philosophical virtues so often look like public vices? It may make a difference here that the research seminar speaker is often a stranger, a visitor with whom most of the listeners have no bond, no obligations of community except the thin demands of professionalism and the burden of departmental hospitality that is often carried by a named host. Perhaps real philosophical engagement requires more than the mere civility that we owe to fleeting visitors invited by someone else in the department. It’s common for philosophers to report that they get more out of small conferences where they meet the same people to continue the same conversations than they do out of participation in huge philosophical jamborees.  (Even Collingwood saw some value in discussions between friends.)

To return to the principal theme of this blog: we are, inevitably, in the business of character education. This is practically, politically and ethically problematic (but that’s education for you). The conditions under which we (BL & JL) teach at our home institution (diverse student body, modular degree programmes, large campus, many non-residential students) are not conducive to character education, which goes better in small, isolated residential communities. We would not change our teaching conditions—we have no nostalgia for homogeneous classrooms, rigid degree structures, narrow focus and near horizons. This, though, puts if anything more importance on the role of staff as exemplars of the excellences of character necessary for academic success. It also demands that we re-think how we go about character education in an institution that is very different from the university as Newman imagined it. It would be a shocking waste of time and money if three years of higher education did not change a person—for the better.


Is philosophical discussion pointless?

James Connelly

Discussion is often thought of as the lifeblood of philosophy. But what is discussion for? What can it achieve? Is securing conviction (or refutation) the measure of success in philosophical discussion? In his Autobiography (1939) R.G. Collingwood made some rather startling comments about the pointlessness of philosophical seminars and discussion:

 I enjoyed … the friendship and society of a great many philosophers … I also enjoyed their philosophical conversation and liked to hear, and engage in, their discussions … I used to meet a dozen or so of my colleagues every week in order to discuss a topic or a view propounded by one of us, and more ceremoniously … the Oxford Philosophical Society met on Sunday evenings two or three times a term for the reading and discussion of a paper. Once a year the thing became a debauch, in the annual joint meeting … at which papers and discussions went on for days together … But these discussions serve no philosophical purpose. Viva voce philosophy is an excellent thing as between tutor and pupil; it may be valuable as between two intimate friends; it is tolerable as between a few friends who know each other very well; but in all these cases its only value is to make one party acquainted with the views of the other. Where it becomes argument, directed to refutation and conviction, it is useless, for … no one has ever been convinced by it. Where it becomes general discussion it is an outrage. One of the company reads a paper, and the rest discuss it with a fluency directly proportional to their ignorance. To shine on such occasions one should have a rather obtuse, insensitive mind and a ready tongue. Whatever may be true of parrots, philosophers who cannot talk probably think the more, and those who think a lot certainly talk the less.

(Autobiography, 53-4)

On this view, there is a philosophical purpose to discussion, but only as enabling one person to understand the views of another; pursuing the goal of convincing or refuting another is pointless. However, although I am sure we recognize that Collingwood’s account is an accurate depiction of some philosophical occasions, could it possibly be true of all?

Before proceeding, it is worth recording that Collingwood was not exaggerating his views for public effect. His private correspondence reveals a similar line of thought. Thus he wrote to Isaiah Berlin in 1938 that: ‘I altogether disapprove of these ‘philosophical discussions’, and have never attended one which did not confirm me in my disapproval and make me ashamed of having gone … I won’t further explain my position; I only ask you to believe that it is a position and not a mere churlishness.’ In the early 1920s he remarked to his close friend Guido de Ruggiero that ‘I also send a trifle which I contributed to one of those Congresses … I am not much pleased with it … the rules of the game called a ‘symposium’ (the name is a good deal cheerfuller than the thing) oblige the disputant to take up an exaggerated position and defend his thesis’; he also described the occasion to his father:

we had only one unpleasant moment, when two Cambridge philosophers of great eminence lost their tempers with each other and screamed and shook their fists in each others’ faces and seemed likely to resort to violence over the question of what if anything, was bent when a stick in water looked bent … My own contribution was quite a success … I succeeded in making A. E. Taylor, who wanted to pull me to pieces, say the exact opposite of what he had said on paper, so I was quite happy; and especially when several different people approached me afterwards and said I had done well …

So Collingwood could, on occasion, relish academic sparring: but what of his serious doubts about the value and purpose of philosophical discussion?

Should we reject Collingwood’s doubts about the value of philosophical discussion out of hand as reflecting his purely personal experience? I suggest not: but some distinctions need to be drawn first. In the passage quoted above he distinguishes three possible types of philosophical discussion, the first two characterized by their goals. He accepts the first and denies the second and third. They are:

  1. Discussion with the goal of making one person acquainted with the views of another
  2. Discussion with the goal of employing argument directed to
    1. refutation
    2. conviction
  3. Discussion as ‘general’ discussion

Collingwood’s hypothesis is that philosophical discussion is good only in so far as it enables one person to learn the views of another. Clarification and elucidation is presumably included, but attempts to convince or refute are not. The contrary view is that discussion per se, the critical play of philosophical dialectic, sharpens what each interlocutor says and thinks and that the attempt to refute, for example, acts as a service to the interlocutor.

Which view should we adopt?[1] It is certainly true, for some, that understanding another’s point of view is enough and that the point of discussion and questioning is to clarify, not, other things being equal, to dispute or refute. It is perhaps true for some that critical attempts at refutation, not on paper but viva voce, is where the action is. But, on the other hand, in a typical instance, how many have gone away from a discussion and remained convinced by a refutation that seemed persuasive a the time by contrast with those who go away and think more about their own thinking or the thinking of those to whom they have listened?

To take Collingwood’s possibilities: proposition 1 is certainly plausible. Whatever our view of a position’s merits, in discussion we can at least come to appreciate and more fully understand the view. Proposition 3, it seems to me, is acceptable. It is rare indeed for general discussion to be worth very much. Unless there is a specific question being pursued with tact, care and sympathy, then much of what passes for discussion is merely an airing of whatever a paper prompts a speaker to utter. Proposition 2 is trickier. As noted above, knock down refutation is exceedingly rare, as is knock down conviction. But doubt is not so rare, and doubt in both cases can be engendered by the attempt to explain, clarify and elucidate, i.e. in engaging in discussion as acquaintance. I might try to explain my worked out philosophical position to another or many others and they might ask me questions sympathetically designed to draw out my meaning further to ensure that they have a proper understanding of my thesis or views. But it might be the case that the more I explain the more apparent it becomes that there is a problem (or several problems) with my overall account and that this gradually becomes apparent both to myself and to my interlocutor(s). In this case 1) can lead, by stealth to 2). But it is by stealth, not by direct assault.

Collingwood might be right, that is, that direct assault either to convince or to refute rarely if ever works; but he might be wrong to assert that refutation and conviction are impossible outcomes of philosophical discussion. That is, it might be best if refutation and conviction are not pursued as the directly intended goals of discussion, and that discussion is best conceived of as elucidation. But, like happiness, although refutation and conviction cannot be aimed at directly, they might emerge as a consequence of such discussion. On this interpretation, Collingwood’s scepticism is to some extent vindicated, but conviction and refutation can nonetheless be outcomes even if not the intended goals of discussion.

A biographical coda

Did Collingwood practice what he preached? How did he appear to his colleagues? Isaiah Berlin wrote of him in 1932 that ‘Collingwood is very exciting and risky. He is a very sly lively continental sort of philosopher … I always found him entertaining, enormously ingenious, and frequently deceitful and unsound. He is the only philosophy tutor in Oxford who is also a man of genuine culture.’ It is worth noting Berlin’s use of the term ‘continental philosopher’: this is a very early use of a term which only came into general use decades later. Again, Collingwood’s colleague at Pembroke College, Oxford, the political scientist R.B. McCallum, remarked of Collingwood that:

He was sometimes said to be a sophist, and his auditors felt that they were being tricked rather than properly confuted. His manner in discussion was agreeable but also somewhat insidious. He was concessive; his code word was ‘certainly’. His interlocutor was led on to state certain propositions and then found them to be mutually inconsistent. In an argument with Collingwood one was nearly always defeated but very often not convinced … He rarely contradicted or engaged in emphatic dissent. He would not rudely dismiss a statement made to him, but would usually deal with it in the Socratic manner by asking questions often very embarrassing to the person who had raised the subject. This was not always agreeable to the rash and the self-opinionated.

[1] In what follows I exclude both considerations of basic competence and the making of straightforward and easily refutable blunders.