Vol. LXXV (2017) - No. 268 Aristotelian Character Education.
Kristjánsson, K. (2015).
Aristotelian Character Education.
London: Routledge. 186 pp.
The book reviewed here is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is worth noting the impact it has had in the academic fi demonstrated by the different responses to it in the Journal of Moral Education by authors such as Curren, Miller, and Lapsley, as well as the publication of a précis of the book written by the author himself, along with a response to the authors mentioned above. In addition, the pertinence of a text whose topic has received increasing attention in many countries round the world is clear. Character education has, in recent years, become an object of study as an example of the ethical turn that education is undergoing, in the words of Ibáñez-Martín.
Indeed, while the title might seem to refer to the history of education in Classical Greece, one of the book’s main strengths is its close link to the present day. The author, who is a professor at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, is well aware of the crucial moment in which this text is being published and so has written it taking into account the needs of the moment. Therefore, it has a theoretical character but with clear practical applications as it is a book about the philosophy of education that comes close to psychology. Furthermore, it is accessible to educators as, while it does tackle important issues, it tries to do so using accessible, clear, direct language, with examples from everyday life that ease understanding, without being a mere academic and intellectual exercise. This philosophical character is also apparent in its highly analytic and well-structured writing style that focusses on refutation as a working method.
It provides a defence of character education with an Aristotelian basis which is updated – or as the author explains, reconstructed – in accordance with contemporary practice and evidence, going beyond mere interpretation of Aristotle’s writings. It is based on an examination of the results of empirical studies, arguing that Aristotle would do the same if he lived in our times.
The first chapter comprises a brief overview of the concept of character since the Second World War, where moral pessimism was fertile ground for Kohlberg’s model to grow compared with the relativism that appeared to be imposing itself. Nonetheless, after several decades of popularity, this rationalist view lost ground in the face of what the author calls the paradigm of the emotionally vulnerable child, which psychologised character, stripping it of its moral content through concepts such as emotional intelligence. According to Kristjánsson, since then we have been in the era of the flourishing child, which focusses on human development in all its potential, including subjective satisfaction as well as objective external criteria. These initial pages of the book also describe concepts such as character, virtue, and the politically incorrect notion of vice, as well their different variants, emphasising aspects such as their necessary materialisation in every person, the possibility of identifying a core of virtues that appear in most philo- sophical and religious systems, as well as the advisability of strengthening them all jointly.
The author gives ten reasons why Aristotle is receiving renewed attention among character educators, reasons that also define this concept: 1) an ontological basis for realism or moral naturalism, 2) a detailed theory of plenitude as the ultimate aim of the human being, 3) recognition of the intrinsic value of human plenitude, 4) a language about virtue that is accessible to teachers and students, 5) establishing a middle point in the virtues that the objective identifies, the prominent place given to emotions, holistic and critical reflection on virtues, 8) attention to the community in character education, 9) identification of different levels of moral development, including behaviour, emotions, and cognition, and 10) moving beyond the dichotomy between direct and indirect moral education.
Turning our attention to chapter 2, we find descriptions of a series of myths about character education along with attempts to refute them through philosophical arguments and data from empirical studies, as well as working from key authors in contemporary moral education, thus illustrating the author’s expert knowledge of the field. However, he does not take a dogmatic position, and sometime recognises deficiencies in character education that it is important to overcome, and he consequently presents his neo-Aristotelianism as a necessary reshaping of the philosopher’s approaches.
These first two introductory chapters leave open various questions and problems that are covered elsewhere in the book. The first, and for Kristjánsson most important, relates to evaluating character education. It is surprising to find such a clear concern for evaluation in a philosopher, but it is something he sees as necessary for consolidating and continuing this educational concept. After analysing the most common evaluation methods minutely and with a critical eye, he argues for combining strategies that must consider the classic methods of pretest-posttest with control groups, self-reports, triangulation, moral dilemmas, and ethnographic observation, as well as other more innovative methods such as big data, linguistic analysis, and neuroscience.
Chapter four, which is perhaps the most complex one in the book, focusses on the rarely-studied cultivation of phronesis, a process that involves a contradiction as it requires critical thinking that is trained through unthinking habituation in its early stages. Its Aristotelian reconstruction maintains that phronesis has a very complex task of organising a good life that cannot be reduced to merely acquiring abilities as it requires a profound theoretical understanding of what the good life means according to empirical knowledge of human nature and its teleological aspiration to happiness or eudaimonia. Therefore, it supports the need for both things in education about phronesis: abilities that make it possible to confront particular situations, but also a theoretical overview to facilitate access to universals. Consequently, it concludes that character education must be promoted across all subjects as well as in its own specific one.
The important question about whether character education can undo the effects of a deficient upbringing is the subject of chapter five. Faced with Aristotelian pessimism owing to the absence of habituation, Kristjánsson proposes reconsidering the priority of the contemplative life in an imperfect world, something which can accept other more appropriate ways of living, for example ones that involve helping those who are in a position of need. The author successfully achieves this reconstruction, starting from other Aristotelian ideas that make it possible to admit the moral change in the person while upholding the link to Aristotle’s philosophy. He argues that it is possible for those who have had a bad education to achieve a morally good life through contact with virtuous models and reflection on the aims of human life. This process will be hard and complex when the distance to cover becomes apparent, and it will require a healthy dose of intelligence and the ability to think in abstract terms about the aims of human life. In other words, it can be done through philosophical contemplation and not just with prudence, as it is necessary to look beyond the regulation of virtues.
Chapter six considers Socratic dialogue as a method in moral education, responding to the criticisms made about character education owing to its supposed scorn for the dialogical relationship. The privileged place occupied by phronesis in Aristotelian thinking and the need to cul- tivate it through the interaction between teacher and student are two of the fundamental arguments the author raises to question this idea. Furthermore, the Aristotelian notion of friendship also helps us discuss this apparent dichotomy, as the interaction and dialogue between mature friendly characters is an element that contributes to personal excellence, or, in the author’s words: «friendship is therefore an important, perhaps the most important, school of virtue» (p. 125).
The seventh chapter concerns the training of teachers, more specifically, the moral dimension of their profession. It warns us that, while this dimension is recognised by teachers, they call for procedures to be able to give it educational value as they have a feeling of insecurity and a lack of resources that is not addressed in their initial training. Using the provocative example of a Chinese teacher who fled from his school to save his life during an earthquake, leaving his students alone to face the danger, it suggests the risks of what the author calls the «constructivist-cognitive paradigm» in the conception of the identity of teachers and of their affective dimension. Consequently, he proposes a measure which is not free from controversy and involves considering character when accepting candidates for teacher training, something that is divisive owing to the challenges with evaluation set out by the author himself in the third chapter of the book. Alongside this, he recommends that character should be a central topic in teacher training, entailing a more reflexive task of self-knowing and a more critical evaluation from a moral perspective, thus making it possible to discover the values that lie within one’s character before venturing into the task of transmitting values to others.
The concluding chapter bemoans the scarce consideration of character in educational policies, dominated by questions such as classroom management and getting results. It argues that to change this situation, it is necessary to influence the public, as once politicians discover that the public really supports concepts such as character education, they will change their policies. Another of the biggest obstacles Kristjánsson encounters is the lack of a satisfactory model of moral education, one that can be applied and accepted by the large majority of teachers. He is perhaps too optimistic when he formulates four conditions that would allow this to become reality: it should meet the needs of the current moment, it should be established with a political consensus between left and right, and it should be supported by a philosophical and psychological theory. According to him, character education meets all of these conditions except the last one, as psychology is still not a firm support for the ethics of virtue or for moral education, for various reasons, responsibility for which is shared between teachers and psychologists.
From this book’s many valuable contributions which are barely covered here, I will conclude by emphasising its optimistic and hopeful vision of education. An education that, fortunately, has regained its interest in moral questions, to which the author makes a broad contribution by establishing some vital foundations for this interest to last in time. Shall we join him in this task?
Juan Luis Fuentes ■