Status anxiety

Sadly, true grit can’t be taught

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

I am currently wrestling with a dilemma. I have agreed to contribute to a panel discussion on character education at University College London, and while I generally applaud schools that try to inculcate qualities like perseverance, resilience, the ability to defer gratification, etc, I am not entirely convinced that these virtues can be taught. Should I swallow my scepticism, or gently point out that it’s naive to expect schools to achieve much in this area?

The panel will be discussing an essay in a periodical called Impact in which philosophers write about education policy. This essay by Randall Curren, a professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester, New York, strikes some pleasingly conservative notes. Curren is in favour of teaching British values (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, tolerance) and believes they can be defended both morally and as the most appropriate set of norms for diverse members of a multicultural society to embrace if they want to live peacefully together.

He rightly dismisses the post-modernist objection to teaching these values, namely, that they are rooted in a white, male, heteronormative worldview, and he even goes so far as to endorse the National Citizen Service, a government-funded programme that involves taking teenagers on Outward Bound-style courses. While the NCS now enjoys cross–party support, it was originally championed by David Cameron and has subsequently been taken up by Theresa May. The fact that it sounds like ‘National Service’ means it is treated with much suspicion by the liberal left.

Curren also makes the sensible recommendation that when controversial issues are discussed in schools, disagreements should be moderated by a respect for relevant forms of evidence and scientific expertise. This makes it surprising that he doesn’t deal with the evidence amassed by behavioural geneticists such as Robert Plomin that says character is not something that can easily be taught.

Let’s begin with the quality of stick-to-it-ness, the subject of a popular book by Angela Duckworth called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. ‘Grit’ is a synonym for conscientiousness, one of the Big Five personality traits, and as such is between 40 and 60 per cent heritable. Studies involving identical and fraternal twins, as well as adoptees brought up in the same households, have established that genetic factors are responsible for 40 to 60 per cent of the variance in conscientiousness at a population level. That still leaves the environment responsible for roughly half the variance, but the difficulty is that the shared environment — families, schools — accounts for a negligible proportion of it, with the ‘microclimates’ children experience through chance and happenstance making the lion’s share of the impact.

Conscientiousness is what Curren refers to as a ‘performance virtue’, and, to be fair, he is not proposing that schools focus on these. Indeed, one response to the behavioural genetics view of character education is to accept that traits like resilience, perseverance and delaying gratification cannot be taught either by parents or teachers, but that ‘moral virtues’ can. Curren would like schools to inculcate mutual respect and understanding, compassion, community-mindedness, willingness to co-operate and so on — all the virtues we would like good citizens to have. True, these characteristics are marginally less heritable than the performance virtues. But again, the difficulty is that the shared environment has less impact than the non-shared environment. It’s not obvious how a school could teach these values via a robust character education programme and there is little evidence that any schools have done so successfully.

Having said all that, I certainly don’t want to discourage philosophers like Randall Curren from promoting the teaching of British values. My conclusion is that there is no harm in schools doing their best to embed performance virtues and moral virtues as a central part of their ethos —but until there is some evidence that these qualities can be taught, they shouldn’t take up any valuable curriculum time. In other words, I have no objection if teachers want to tell children that if at first they don’t succeed they should try, try and try again. But they should deliver that message when marking their maths homework, not devote a lesson to it.

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