Educating Character Through Stories, by David Carr and Tom Harrison

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Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2015. Pp. 184. Pb. £14.95; e-book (Kindle) £10.99.

Reviewed by Oliver Belas

@MrBelas

David Carr and Tom Harrison’s Educating Character Through Stories has three principle aims. First, “to defend and further illuminate a fairly time-honoured conviction that the education of children and young people should extend beyond the learning of academic subjects and /or useful skills to comprehend the development of moral and social values, and […] to the cultivation of personal and moral character” (p. 1). Second, following “naturalistic” neo-Aristotelianism (p. 19), they want to press the point that “stories from past and present day imaginative literature” are perhaps the richest sources of moral knowledge on offer (richer, say, than either the “soft” or “hard” sciences) (p. 2). Here, they take their lead from MacIntyre’s argument that the unity of our moral lives is intelligible only on the model of narrative construction, and must be understood in terms of narrative traditions (MacIntyre 1985, pp. 204-25; Carr & Harrison, Ch. 2). Third, they hope to “help teachers, parents and others involved in the moral education and character formation of children and young people to understand better how stories might be utilized to promote [the] goals” of character education (p. 2).

Both authors are based at University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and their book – while explicitly not designed as a moral-educational how-to guide (p. 2) – can be read as an outline of and philosophical manifesto for the Jubilee Centre’s Knightly Virtues programme (see reference list below for link to website). The first incarnation of the programme[1] – aimed principally at 9 to 11 year olds (Years 5 and 6 in England) – involves teaching five stories, drawn from medieval and Renaissance literature, which between them, it is claimed, articulate and exemplify the eight knightly virtues of humility, honesty, love, service, courage, justice, self-discipline, and gratitude. The stories were selected with a view to investigating different virtues in each: the Arthurian tale of Gareth and Lynette (courage, humility); El Cid (humility, honesty); Don Quixote (love, service); The Merchant of Venice (self-discipline, justice, gratitude) (adapted from p. 128). 

The book consists of a general introduction and seven chapters, the last three of which, respectively, summarize the stories at the levels of plot and moral import, outline approaches to the teaching of the stories and implementation of the Knightly Virtues programme (either in full or in part), and offer a broad-strokes picture of the programme’s impact to date and its further development. Chapters 1-4 limn the philosophical underpinnings of the Knightly Virtues project – which proceeds from the conviction that, at the broadest level, the aims of formal education must be to support and shape the moral development of children and young people (see Ch. 1) – and the purposes to which stories might usefully be put once they are understood as encoding certain moral lessons and truths.

Educating Character Through Stories is a brief and in many ways accessible book which is nevertheless ambitious in its reach, aiming as it does to contribute both to philosophical debate around character education and its pedagogical practices. Herein lies the book’s greatest strength: its clear statements of belief, purpose, methods of implementation, and intended outcomes – all in little more than 150 pages. It is thus a very serviceable introduction to a particular – by no means unproblematic – way of understanding and doing moral and character education. However, no doubt because of its brevity and ambition, the book is heavy on claims and relatively light on developed argument. This is a problem given both the book’s cultural bias towards a rather monochrome, religiously fundamentalist (in Kristjánsson’s (2002) philosophical sense) moral grounding, and its implicit presumption that a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics is the “best” or “right” way forward (no contrasting positions are considered, compared, or critiqued). Its philosophical and scholarly scope is thus restricted. A shame, this; in light of the heavily freighted mainstream discourse of knowledge in education, it’s refreshing to encounter any serious attempt to consider moral education as a source and form of knowledge proper.[2]

Indeed, notwithstanding Carr and Harrison’s attempt to cover a good deal of philosophical and pedagogical ground in relatively few pages, there are a number of unresolved tensions or philosophical gaps in their book. For one, by naturalizing Aristotle they see their delineation of knightly virtues as being true “cross-culturally,” because, regardless of the literary traditions from which their exemplar texts are drawn, these virtues are “conducive to human wellbeing or flourishing” (p. 20).[3] But though such moral cosmopolitanism and methodological substantivism have their attractions – not least as an antidote to the frictionless relativism often associated with the postmodernists – Educating Character Through Stories has no answers for culturally inscribed questions over, say, the nature or meaning of “humility” or “service”: humility before and service to whom or what (and why)? Such objections are, I think, easy to predict and potentially answerable; it would have been useful for the authors to have done this explicitly and in some detail, for as things stand they risk leaving themselves open to the sorts of common attacks against which Kristjánsson (2002), for one, has sought to defend non-expansive character education.[4] Moreover, it is not clear that the backwards-looking appeal to the continuity of medieval morality naturally follows the gesture, inspired by MacIntyre, towards moral agency and life understood as narrative composition situated in a narrative tradition (see Ch. 2): their moral cosmopolitanism seems to tend towards a- or trans-historical continuity, while MacIntyre’s account demands a sense of cultural-historical contingency, and is potentially more individualistic. The Knightly Virtues programme seeks to position young students, regardless of their cultural heritage, into a particular moral narrative, thus injecting them into a “common” moral frame. This is as opposed to articulating, pace MacIntyre, the moral narratives that persons may already embody: MacIntyre writes that the “unity of an individual life” “is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life” (1985, p. 218). And while he does make good use of the figure of the quest narrative, MacIntyre is careful to point out that (narrative) tradition is not a matter of smooth continuity; rather, “[t]raditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict” (1981, p. 222; emphasis added). Again, it is not that the authors’ and MacIntyre’s views are necessarily incommensurable; it is simply that clarification is needed here.[5]

In closing, it is worth considering some likely responses to the book. There will certainly be some for whom the neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics associated with Birmingham and the Jubilee Centre represents a promising direction in philosophy of moral education. But there will doubtless be as many for whom the coupling of apparent moral prescriptivism and literary instrumentalism will be distinctly uncomfortable and morally questionable. Here, it is only fair to recognize the authors’ belief that moral enquiry thrives in “a climate of open and critical reflection that allows scope for reasonable disagreement and dissent” (p. 32); but this claim seems to sit awkwardly alongside the more prescriptive nature of the Knightly Virtues project: the knightly virtues are codified, rather narrowly, in advance,[6] and have already been mapped to “their” text, so that such “discovery” as there is will, for sceptical readers, likely seem a case of successfully following a ready-made map to a predetermined location. The authors show signs of anticipating and resisting such a reading, but their book does not, in its current form, offer any strong defences against it. In the later chapters there are many arguments made for the project – enjoyment, general literacy, recovery of lost or forgotten canonical texts – that have little to do with its central moral-philosophical position and educational project. It would have been preferable for this space to have been filled with more developed and nuanced discussion. For although Educating Character Through Stories is a useful, readable, and accessible, it is a little lacking in philosophical purchase.

References

Hirsch, E.D. (2015) Policy Exchange Annual Education Lecture (17 September; retrieved 30/09/15)

Kristjánsson, K. (2002) In Defence of “Non-Expansive” Character Education, Journal of Philosophy of Education 26.2, pp. 135-156

MacIntyre, A. (1985) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, second ed. (London, Duckworth)

Simons, J. and Porter, N. (2015) Knowledge and the Curriculum: A Collection of Essays to Accompany E.D. Hirsch’s Lecture at Policy Exchange (London, Policy Exchange; retrieved 30/09/15)



[1] An extended programme is currently being developed by Professor Jon Davison (see Carr & Harrison, 2015, pp. 162-63, as well as link in reference list).

[2] For a sense of this debate, outside of specifically philosophical discussion, see e.g. the Simons and Porter (2015) collection on E.D. Hirsch, as well as Hirsch’s recent Policy Exchange Annual Education Lecture (Hirsch, 2015).

[3] For passing comments on race, and an acknowledgement that contemporary stories pertaining to racial oppression and liberation should be included, see pp. 94, 162-63; for somewhat conflicting comments on gender in relation to the programme, see pp. 124-25, 150.

[4] My thanks to David Aldridge for drawing my attention to Kristjánsson’s article.

[5] MacIntyre is also rather more circumspect in his moral teleology than the Knightly Virtues programme. MacIntyre claims, in deliberately circular fashion, that “the good life for man is the life spent seeking for the good life for man” (1985, 219); the virtues, then, are means to this radically open end.

[6] Definitions of the eight virtues are provided in the teaching resources developed by the Jubilee Centre. These definitions are in some cases highly tendentious, in others so highly qualified as to make the “true” nature of the virtue unclear. For example, humility is defined as “put[ting] the needs of others before your own, and be[ing] willing to take care of others as you take of yourself,” while justice is defined thus: “hav[ing] an understanding of what it is to uphold what is right.” For more on The Jubilee Centre’s Knightly Virtues programme, including links to teacher resources, go here.

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