Educating For Character

Conversations change. The idea of a Nineteenth century college education could be, with some generalisation, summarised as one to build the character of the student, with the assumption that with those character strengths, they would be able to learn and lead in different walks of life. But, as professions start to emerge, Character was no longer enough. In the professional society, technical skills came into prominence, and indeed, became the point of education. The conversation reversed - a good technocrat was understood to possess the character anyway.

These ideas may be at an inflection point yet again, but before we get into this, it is worth wondering what character meant and why we abandoned its quest for technical skills in the first place. I am acutely conscious of the gross generalisations that one has to make in a conversation like this, including the implication of epochal change - that one thing neatly went out of fashion when the other thing came in. For a fact, we always talked about character and one needed to know how to handle the sword to be a nobleman. But, at the same time, with the benefit of long view, one could perhaps see there was a switch at some point in history. Even if we do not, and can not, point to a specific date, event or a person when things turned, I am making the point that the ideas did change - and may change again.

So, why did the conversation about character become redundant? One easy explanation would be that what character came to mean become redundant. While it may have been the Holy Grail of the Victorian world, it died in the brutal test of great war (it may have died in America several years earlier, in the Civil War). Less dramatically, the new social structures emerging after the Great War, with an increasingly demanding middle class and working class movements, and the fragile and ever-changing collaboration between the two, social values and arrangements about who gets what changed. A new conversation about meritocracy was ascendant, a new professional class became the new elite. Industrial expansion - late years of Great War might have been the tipping point of industrial might over individual courage - meant a Professional Managerial class and bureaucratic hierarchies. The point of education became, more or less, effective participation in the economy through professional advancement, and this needed something else other than the character. In time, the professionals, Doctors, Accountants, Engineers, became the elite of the new society, defining the norms and what matters.

This professional society is facing an existential crisis now. Good professionals may be secure in their jobs, but two trends confronting us undermine the blueprints of the professional society we signed up to. First, the rise of the amateur, from filing the tax return to the rise of blogging millions, partly because of technological enabling and partly because the professional society became too restrictive, changes the professional boundaries and challenges the professional ethic. The institutional nature of the professions limited how these professions could change in time, and once technologies became available to bypass the traditions, they got disrupted. Second, this, and the increasing trend of automating professional jobs, limited the scope of expansion of the Professional Employment significantly. It no longer made sense for an Accountant's son to become an Accountant, or an Engineer's daughter to dream of being an Engineer, when the old men were struggling themselves.

In this melee, Character has acquired a new meaning. It is indeed different what the word meant for the Victorians, and some of my English friends would still snigger at the term popular in other societies - Finishing School - because it conjures up the image of preppy teenagers learning to handle cutlery and learning the rhetorical arts. But, finishing schools are back in fashion, and it stands for things other than table manners and politeness. The point of character in this late Middle Class economy is a derivative of those professional values that overcame the Victorian penchant for Character. So, a man of character today is not moralistic in the Victorian sense, nor with crusty manners and detached objectivism. Today's person of character is involved, a man of people, with professional honesty, commitment to hard work, work ethic and discipline, someone who is reliable, in many ways, an anti-thesis of what a man of character would be a hundred years ago (and, indeed, the change in the meaning of character is far more dramatic for women). 

These are different values loaded into an old, rather overused, word. In this Late Middle Class economy, when the limits of economic and technological expansion are visible, technology is not just augmentative but also disruptive, and faith in progress has been replaced by uncertainty, Character is being reincarnated in its professional avatar.

In this context, let us ask the question whether one can educate for character, and the answer would be a resounding yes. When we say that it is not possible, we are clinging too much to the old word, which has lost potency in the current context, and consequentially, the past failure in building character, while in clear evidence, is not relevant today. Today's educator face a different challenge, and educating for Character is one of her key objectives - or, should be.



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