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.