Thursday 8th & Friday 9th January 2015
These first two enquiries of the New Year were inspired, not as the BBC Radio 4 clip might imply – by recent political discussions about the nature of ‘character’ – but by a longstanding adventure with ideas identity as a way of coping with the big changes we experience in life, some of which deliver us on the doorstep of some really deep moral issues.
When we discuss ethics and morals, we very often address moral dilemmas and explore how utilitarian theories or rule based ethical theories like ‘Divine Command Ethics’ help or hinder us in resolving them. ‘Virtue Ethics’ is not part of this discussion, but seems to be making a comeback. The ‘Thought for the Day’ clip gives a brief summary of Aristotle’s theory of ethics with its biblical counterpart.
One of the essential questions raised by virtue ethics is this: if we don’t have a clear vision of who we want or ought to be, how can any action or decision we make now help to shape our character to become more moral? Of course, you could argue like the existentialists that the very act of choosing shapes your nature and such choosing is intrinsically moral. However, the idea of character building, as suggested by the ancient philosophers Aristotle and Confucius, is not preoccupied so much with moral actions and their consequences or with moral rules, but is focused on strategies to nurture a specific kind of moral identity that makes us adapt and face up to anything that life throws at us.
The discussions of the central question developed in two phases. In the first phase, students explored the kind of characteristics they believed they had acquired in their first 3-5 years at KEHS (bearing in mind that some of them were already shaped by parents and so were reinforced by their experiences at KEHS). Students listed the following qualities with some explanation of the experiences they had undergone in developing them:
Patience; open-mindedness; pride in differences; respect; courtesy; determination; confidence/self-worth; independence; ambition; work ethic and a general sense of camaraderie.
The second phase was signalled by introducing the students to a series of perspectives of former Heads of KEHS about the kind of values they were trying to cultivate at the school.
‘Character, health, the power of filling one’s place in life…a high sense of duty and a great simplicity of character (Miss Creak: Candler, W. I., Jaques, A. M. & Dobbie, B. M. W., King Edward VI High School for Girls 1883-1970, E. Benn Ltd., London, 1971, p. 53)
‘…interests, service, curiosity…’ (Miss E. Evans: Personal correspondence, December 2014.)
‘…care, creativity, courage…’ (Miss S. Evans: School Assembly, September 2010.)
Based on these ideas, students were asked which characteristics should be promoted as a means of helping to build a profile of a KEHS student. The idea was to draw up a tentative list of characteristics so that we could visualise the kind of character we wanted to be by the end of the year:
Care (humility); tenacity; intellectual curiosity; work ethic; courage; (leadership/risk); confidence; honesty; pride/respect differences (tolerance); loyalty; creativity; versatility; resilience; responsibility/duty.
Of course, the views of the handful of girls engaged in discussing this topic are not fully representative of the whole school community. But one of the most profound insights yielded by the discussion was this: these students were convinced that the ultimate shared goal of KEHS students is success. They are well aware that this means ‘academic success’ as embodied in the mantra ‘You must get A*s and As at any cost’. Students felt that this leads to an almost unhealthy competitiveness which not only undermines their academic efforts (‘If I’ve done my best and got a B, then this should be good enough’), but also their physical and emotional health.
One of the possible transitions proposed to redress this nagging issue was to change the sense of the shared goal to the building of ‘a strong moral compass’ as embodied by the ‘virtues’ in the above list. Students felt that this might help some high achievers to gain their A*s but not at the cost of compromising their health and to help some students who achieve lower results to cope with the perceived ‘failure’ of their academic work. In short, we were left pondering the question: whatever happened to the notion that KEHS girls are supposed to be ‘well rounded’ when they leave school to be part of the big wide world?