The Jubilee Centre approach to ‘teaching character and virtues’

Since its foundation in 2012 as an interdisciplinary research center, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has become a home to 30 scholars from a range of disciplines brought together by a common interest in ‘how character and virtues impact individuals and society’ (Arthur et al. 2017: 1; Carr 2018; Carr et al. 2017; Kristjansson 2010, 2015, 2018). In addition to theoretical works and empirical research, Jubilee Centre scholars have developed a vast range of teaching resources, including The Character Curriculum (Jubilee Centre nda). Their ambition to shape the field of character education is reflected in the first and, at the time of writing, only distance learning MA Character Education in the world. This master’s course focuses on the theory and practice of human flourishing within a ‘broad’ understanding of character ‘encompassing aspects of wellbeing, ethics, citizenship and social and emotional education’ (University of Birmingham 2019). Importantly, as Arthur et al. (2017: 1) emphasize, the Jubilee Centre approach to character education is ‘not about moral indoctrination or mindless conditioning’ but about the ‘development of critical, reflective and applied thinking’ essential to individual and societal flourishing. According to Harrison et al. (2016: 1), Aristotelian virtue ethics is ‘viewed by many as the best philosophical basis’ for character education. As a normative theory, it tells us what kind of persons we should strive to become, unlike utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, which focus on how we should act. At the center of the theory is ‘virtue’, a character trait or disposition that represents a golden mean between the extremes of ‘deficiency’ and ‘excess’. Virtues such as courage, truthfulness, patience and friendliness lie between these two undesirable extremes. For example, courage pertains to bravery in the face of danger and is a golden mean that lies between cowardice (as the extreme of deficiency) and rashness (extreme of excess). In Arthur et al.’s (2017: 16) account, ‘virtue’ can be understood as an ‘acquired disposition to do what is good’. Each virtue comprises:

a unique set consisting of perception/recognition, emotion, desire, motivation, behaviour and comportment - or style, applicable in the relevant sphere - where none of these elements (not even ‘correct’ behaviour) can be evaluated in isolation from the others.

(Arthur et al. 2017: 28)

This ‘componential view’ (Kristjansson 2018) of virtue is considered important because, without the right emotion or motivation, certain behaviors or character traits that might be deemed socially desirable are in fact morally problematic. For example, resilience has recently been elevated to the status of a ‘super’ trait but, as Kristjansson (2015: 6) observes, resilience may be ‘positively dangerous’ when disconnected from moral constraint. The character of a repeat criminal offender or a billionaire tax evader may display a lot of resilience but lack the moral compass to steer them away from the vices of dishonesty or greed. In this regard, neo-Aristotelian scholars have developed categorizations of different types of virtues that should be prioritized in the classroom, in addition to prototypical virtues (Arthur et al. 2017), as well as ‘virtuous emotions’ (Kristjansson 2018). The four types of virtues include: moral virtues (such as compassion, gratitude, courage, justice, humility, self-discipline, honesty); performance virtues (resilience, determination, confidence, teamwork); civic virtues (service, volunteering, citizenship), and intellectual virtues (autonomy, perseverance, reasoning) (Arthur et al. 2017: 10-11). The prototypical virtues include courage, justice, honesty, compassion, gratitude and humility/modesty. Their prototypical nature means that these virtues are ‘embraced by representatives of most cultures and religions’ (p. 37). In the Aristotelian scheme there is also a ‘meta’ virtue, phronesis, also referred to as ‘moral wisdom’, ‘good sense’ or the ‘capacity to choose intelligently between alternatives when the demands of two or more virtues collide’ (p. 1).

The prototypical virtues feature in many ‘off-the-shelf resources for teaching character and virtue, where they are contrasted with vices such as: greed, excess, vanity, arrogance, dishonesty, apathy and anger (for example in Virtue, Vice and Verse, Jubilee Centre ndb). As explained in Chapter 2, social psychologists categorize anger as a moral emotion because it can be triggered by perceived injustices against the self or others, thus acting as a guardian of moral standards (Haidt 2003). However, the Jubilee Centre’s approach to anger and other negative emotions resonates with that of the advocates of emotions management such as Goleman (1995). Specifically, Arthur et al. (2017: 134) recommend Coleman’s Emotional Intelligence book as a ‘good’ source that explains ‘the emotion system clearly’. They also use a sequence of steps for recognizing and managing emotions resonant of Goleman’s approach deployed in the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) curriculum (DfES 2007) examined in Chapter 2. For example, Arthur et al.’s example lesson plans for teaching emotions include steps such as: recognizing emotions and their causes, managing the ‘emotion system’, positive action to ‘manage’ emotion, ‘using emotion’ to engage and make a difference in the world (2017: 134—138). A similar SEAL-like sequence of steps is recommended for developing ‘virtue knowledge’ in the primary classroom. As explained by Harrison et al. (2016), ‘virtue knowledge’ depends on children being able to:

  • 1 Recognise and name particular virtues
  • 2 Recognise and name situations which call for those particular virtues by...
  • 3 ... recognising the emotions we and others feel in particular situations
  • 4 Observing what it is that people who have developed the virtue can do particularly well (2016: 67)

Importantly, learning about character and virtues in the primary and secondary' classrooms involves ‘producing’ specific emotions (Harrison et al. 2016: 164) and ‘using emotion’ (Arthur et al. 2017: 136) to achieve particular goals. The problem here is that, if ‘producing’ or ‘using’ emotions becomes a habit, then practical reason may be replaced by ‘mindless’ techniques for the regulation of emotions that neo-Aristotelians have set out to transcend.

However, Jubilee Centre scholars emphasize that what distinguishes neoAristotelian character education from the SEL focus on behavior modification is the role of emotions as an essential component of virtue. As Kristjansson (2018: 2) points out, we are drawn to virtue ethics because it helps us to make sense of ‘the moral salience of our emotional lives’. Analogous to the golden mean, emotional moderation becomes a component of virtue when emotion is not ‘too intense or slack’ but when it is felt ‘at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end and in the right way’ (Aristotle as cited in Kristjansson 2018: 20). Similar to virtues, ‘virtuous emotions’ are thus defined in terms of their mediality, i.e. in terms of the individual adopting medial emotional states. Not feeling the ‘proper’ emotion at the right time ‘is evidence of moral failings’ (Kristjansson 2018: 2). However, feeling the ‘proper’ emotion at the ‘right’ time may be highly challenging because, in the case of emotions, the golden mean in the sense of not being ‘too intense’ or ‘too slack’ involves:

  • (a) occasions, (b) objects, (c) people, (d) motive (i.e. goal), and (e) way (i.e. degree). Since one also needs to feel the relevant pain and pleasure correctly, and for each parameter of mediality one’s reaction can fail by being excessive, very excessive, deficient, or very deficient, there are at least forty failure modes for each emotion
  • (2018: 20)

Such complexity could be both conceptually confusing and almost impossible for teachers and students to put into practice. The idea that individuals are ‘fully virtuous only if they are regularly disposed to experience emotions in this medial way’ (p. 20) may be setting an unachievable ideal. Even more concerning is an implicit view of children as passive recipients of received wisdom within a transmission model of learning: in the early stages, character education is to do with ‘emotional sensitization’ that involves ‘setting up moral schemas in the young’ (Kristjansson 2018: 25). In the more advanced stages, when virtue begins to become a habit, the student’s moral progress happens ‘via learning to attach emotional value to virtuous actions and loving them for their own sake’ (p. 26). This schema thus posits virtuous actions, rather than other people, as the object of one’s love. This neo-Aristotelian account of ‘virtuous emotions’ can be contrasted with the cultural sociology perspective on emotions as arising from our interpersonal relationships and interactions (Chapter 3), as well as the phenomenological view, according to which feeling moral emotions reveals us as interdependent (developed in Part II of this book). As discussed later in this chapter, this schema radically departs from the account of emotions developed by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher who has also engaged with Aristotelian philosophy.

The Jubilee Centre’s focus on virtues and virtuous emotions as somehow separate from the individual is reflected in the references to ‘educating the virtues’ (Kristjansson 2018: 26) and ‘teaching character’ (Arthur et al. 2017; Harrison et al. 2016). Such impersonal language that reifies ‘character’ is also reflected in the key principles for character education, which state for example that:

Character is educable and its progress can be measured ...

Character is largely caught through role-modelling and emotional contagion ...

Character should also be taught ...

Character results in academic gains for students ...

Character demonstrates a readiness to learn from others

Character promotes democratic citizenship

(Arthur et al. 2017: 179)

The teacher’s character here is a ‘tool’ for developing students’ character. As the Jubilee Centre’s (2015) ‘Statement on Teacher Education and Character Education’ explains to teachers: ‘the single most powerful tool you have to impact a student’s character is your own character’. The demands of virtue education thus also encompass the teacher, whose role as a character educator could be referred to as a ‘paragon of virtue’. Arthur et al. (2017) cite a number of authors who specify what this means. The teacher as a ‘moral exemplar’ has qualities such as honesty, respect, sensitivity to others, patience and, in addition, is a good listener, is likeable, shows compassion and caring — ‘the list is almost endless’ (p. 13). The list also includes the teacher’s commitment to moral principles, a focus on inspiring others in order to ‘move them to moral action’, as well as a ‘relative lack of concern for one’s own ego’ (p. 14). It would be wrong to challenge these criteria, and educational researchers have for many years focused on aspects of teacher professionalism such as responsibility for the formation of young lives and a vocation or ‘calling’ to a public service (Grace 2014). However, given Arthur et al.’s (2017: 1) aspiration for character education to be based on ‘robust and rigorous research — and evidence-based approach’, it is easy to envisage teacher recruitment and performance management systems that evaluate teachers against ‘almost endless’ lists of criteria to gain ‘objective’ knowledge of ‘who [they] really are deep down’ (p. 110). In their attempt to develop instruments to measure virtue in ‘people in general and in young moral learners in particular’ the Jubilee Centre scholars have found that self-report instruments may not generate sufficiently objective data, due to ‘possible response biases ... caused by self-fabulations, self-confirmation tendencies and social desirability norms’ (pp. 109—110). The search for ‘objective’ knowledge of who students or teachers really are ‘deep down’ intrudes into the private sphere of morals and values. Concern about potential ‘self-fabulations’ also suggests a lack of the moral emotion of trust in the Jubilee Centre approach to measuring virtue (see Chapter 6).

Having conducted a systematic evaluation of the Jubilee Centre’s teaching materials, Jerome and Kisby (2019) concluded that some of the materials fall short of Aristotelian aspirations. They also noted that, given limited evidence of the effectiveness of these materials, character education ‘advocates’ may be prone to an unduly ‘optimistic bias’. The Jubilee Centre’s approach has also been criticized for undue emphasis on the individual over the public and the political (Suissa 2015). Specifically, the balance between the individual and the collective seems to be tipped towards an individualistic focus on the inculcation of virtues, rather than the social and political contexts that support or constrain the cultivation of particular character traits. A cursory engagement with contemporary political problems can be discerned from Arthur et al.’s comment on the similarity between Aristotle’s ideas and current sensibilities:

the Athenians had experimented with democracy and were faced with many of the same challenges that we encounter in modern Western democracies, including demagoguery and public disaffection or apathy.

(2017: 26)

Contemporary society faces challenges that go beyond demagoguery, public disaffection or apathy, as discussed in Chapters 5 and 10. The Jubilee Centre’s critique skates over the surface of ‘the political’ defined by Judith Suissa as the ‘whole realm of human enquiry and experience’ that addresses the question: ‘how people like us are to live together’ (2015: 110). According to Suissa, a deeper engagement with the political would entail engaging students in the debates on human needs, as well as social obligations related to these needs that go beyond students’ immediate environment. Social inequality, austerity and poverty call for radical solutions and, in the classroom, for debates on the ‘kind of society we want’ (p. 114).

Suissa’s argument can be illustrated by the sample lessons on ‘planning’ and ‘making social change’ (Arthur et al. 2017: 138—139). The lessons pivot on ‘social change’ within students’ ‘immediate environment’, even though the lesson title refers to ‘civic virtues’, specifically to ‘using emotions to help us engage (the civic virtues)’. The first small-group activity engages students in planning to ‘make social change’ by identifying ‘things in their world’ that they would like to change, because they annoy them or make them unhappy, sad or angry (p. 139). A depth discussion of their emotions follows, in order to provide students with ‘motivation for action’. In the second activity, the students are asked to use their ‘practical intelligence and virtues’ to plan what they could do to change the situation. As Arthur et al. (2017: 139) recommend, students should select ‘something in their immediate environment’ as this will enable them to see the impact of their actions on ‘something tangible’. These activities reflect an assumption that ‘it is more feasible to start with the individual child, student or classroom than the whole school system or society at large’ (p. 44). However, an approach that puts emphasis on individuals and their character traits reinforces the dominant policy discourse that ‘views the system as here to stay and individuals as to blame for social problems’ (Suissa 2015: 114). Another problem with this approach is that it conceptualizes individuals as atomized and children as ‘potentially human’ (Arthur et al. 2017: 62).

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