The moral training of young children

I recently read a piece in The Guardian about the introduction of financial education in our schools from next September, intended to teach children to “solve money related maths problems and learn about public finances, pensions and how to budget”. Worthwhile behaviour this of course is, and the priority given to such lessons is a growing trend in today’s schools. I think it reflects the role that the curriculum plays in the mind of today’s activist. Faced with the crisis of obesity, or waste, or the role of women, the activist suggests that we teach children how to eat their greens, use fewer plastic bags, dismantle the patriarchy and so on.

Such suggestions are benignly given, seem sensible and few would question the problems they seek to solve. But do such lessons achieved the desired effect? I think they are often have three unintended consequences.

Firstly, such lessons take time away from a school’s core purpose, which is the transmission of knowledge. You’ll notice that most of these lessons are aimed at primary school children who have not yet mastered the foundations of arithmetic, reading, writing, grammar, history, geography, science etc. Lessons instructing children in particular attitudes or behaviours were traditionally a responsibility of the home because it was felt that schools did not have enough time to combine ethical lessons with traditional subject lessons. Here is an example of a lesson on water health and wellbeing as part of the Guardian’s ‘Live Better Challenge’:

“[F]ive nine- and 10-year-old boys fan out next to each other in the grass under a big, leafy tree. Another boy tries to lie beside them. “Get up, we can’t have six fingers. Go and be soap!” bawls part of the “hand”. The unwanted finger reluctantly hauls himself to his feet and joins the larger group of pupils standing over the outspread hand. Grinning at the sheer daftness of it, they all start to bob up and down in unison, making splurting noises as the “fingers” wriggle energetically on the ground. “Miss, look, we’re a soap dispenser!” the pupils call out, verging on hysterics as they try to co-ordinate their “squirting” action.”

Every hour that a child spends in lessons like these is an hour he is not spending learning the essential prior subject knowledge needed to understand the world in any depth.

The second effect is an effect of the first. Without foundational subject knowledge, is it not probable that children will learn the behavioural commandment without understanding the knowledge underpinning it? The best time to consider conservation, nutrition, feminism and other prominent contemporary issues is once a child has a good working knowledge of natural biology, human biology, history, politics etc. Without knowledge, the commandment becomes something of an empty cartridge, unconnected to the wider fabric of human knowledge, less likely, perhaps, to lodge in the daily consciousness of the child.

Lastly, I have long been unconvinced that lessons in behaviour, which might otherwise be called lessons in character, are best taught explicitly in the classroom. The independent sector has always understood this truth, preferring to inculcate virtues through the careful cultivation of a child’s experiences outside the classroom, such as on the sports field or in the dining hall. If we are to teach character in the classroom, do the above examples – and many like it – really hold up to scrutiny as virtues? Are they not rather applications of older virtues, such as temperance (‘temperantia‘) or charity (‘caritas‘)? To misrepresent the application of a virtue for a virtue itself is to conspire in a moral muddying of the waters, particularly when we are talking about the character formation of young children.

To take one example, a recent government report found that the UK had slipped from sixth to ninth place in the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index, that “a relative lack of ambition and positive attitudes may hold the UK back from realising its full entrepreneurial potential”, and that therefore the following lessons in primary schools were to be encouraged:

“Schoolchildren as young as five as will be taught how to set up their own businesses and make profits under plans to be unveiled this week…Those changes would mean that even the youngest children will be taught about the role and importance of business and the need to make a profit.”

The instruction “to make a profit” is not a morally defensible virtue in itself, but is rather an instance of the older virtue of diligence (‘industria’); just as the instruction to eat healthily is an example of temperance (‘temperantia’). Profit is a benign outcome only when tempered by other virtues and limited by other vices – above all greed. To set up profit itself as the virtue is, in C. S. Lewis words, a “rebellion of the branches against the tree.”

For more than a century, the multitude of different Purposes for education has disturbed and confused the means. “We [profess] to make ideal citizens, super tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars,” Jacques Barzun wrote – in 1945. There is of course a place for character education, and the UK independent sector has been responsible for some of the best examples of it, but it would be wiser if it was both confined to a later stage in a child’s schooling and limited in scope to virtues and vices that have stood the test of time.

Towards Understanding

The crest and motto of Shaw House School.
The crest and motto of Shaw House School, courtesy of its Facebook page

How far a motto describes the ethos of a school is a matter of some debate, but I rather liked the crest I saw on a recent visit to Shaw House School: “Towards Understanding.” Humble, unambiguous, purposeful, it perished with the school in 1985 when the buildings were discovered to be unsound.

The land was passed to Newbury County Council, which opened a state secondary on the same site in 1999. A new school, with a new motto:

Personal excellence and collective responsibility

I don’t want to labour the point, but I wonder if the waters have not been muddied when the schoolchild who went to school knowing that he was expected “to understand” now goes “to be personally excellent and collectively responsible”?