The Conversation about Character

Character is back in conversation.

It was one of those Victorian ideals we came to discard. It reeked of elitism, somewhat, and of an irrelevant valour from a time past. The IQ, which came to replace it somewhat, was far more democratic, at least in theory. We loved those stories of smart people coming from unlikely places, and they became our new heroes.

But, as it seems, character is back in conversation, with a vengeance. As IQ peaked, and observing all the craze about tests and test preps, one would tend to think this can't get any crazier, cognitive psychologists, economists and educators started talking about the value of the non-cognitive skills, such as work ethic, self control, integrity, grit etc. We now have masses of data and all sorts of interesting research proving that these things do indeed matter, and character building is now back at the centre of educational discussions.

Which should be good news, I should think. I am on to a little project to go beyond the rhetoric of 21st century education, trying to figure what really matters and what is really going to matter, with a different kind of globalisation, combined with automation and micro- and smart-manufacturing, and environmental constraints coming into play. And, this encompasses deeper questions about what is the secret sauce of human civilisation and how to sustain progress when the world as we know it turns upside down. And, Character, broadly defined, captures what may need to be there at the core of educational enterprise.

I notice this talk of character is spreading everywhere. It is no longer just a Western European thing, but beautiful books are being written in the US and the Chinese are talking about it (admittedly, they always did). Even the Indian employers, the most transactional ones, are talking about hidden skills, as they all-engineering civilisation they were building teeters at the brink. Education for character building, rather than just jobs or even developing smarts, is cool again.

This renewed focus on character should not make the religious ones sit up and make any I-told-you-so claim. This is not about being religious, but being human. This is also not about genteel birth, character is not about manners and accent (as it would be in Britain), but rather things like integrity and compassion, which may come from most unlikely places. While we are using an old word - character - we are in a different world. We indeed have to reimagine what this means, and how we educate for this. The current discussion is anyway a great start towards that effort.


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