Category Archives: Character

Creating The Perfect Child.

I took my son to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Saturday. I recall seeing the first one in London when I was young. It was 1977 and Simon Scott (the boy who lived next door to me when I was a ‘southerner’ – we used to call him Simon Snot) had invited a few of us to the cinema for his birthday. I was hooked immediately, but the thought of this gleaming white army of Stormtroopers, bred to carry out every order (no matter how heinous) unnerved me a little. Times move on and in The Force Awakens we learn that the ‘new style’ Stormtroopers go through some kind of programming to turn them into these efficient killing machines. Sometimes, however, the programming ‘doesn’t take’.

While sitting in my seat, Ethan making as much noise as he possibly could with nothing more than a bag of Haribo, my mind momentarily leaped into my mental DeLorean, engaged the flux capacitor and took a quick trip back to the release of the Sutton Trust report ‘A Winning Personality’. Could we really ‘programme’ children to be more efficient, more agreeable and higher achieving? More than that, could we programme them to be better citizens, unquestioning and less rebellious?

Just think, we could take the most desirable character traits and, through education, implant them into school children. It doesn’t matter that psychologists can’t really agree on whether there are 3, 5 or even 16 personality dimensions just as long as we have the ones that society deems most useful. If the programming doesn’t take first time then we can just send them back for reprogramming.

Creating the perfect child would be easy.

We need them to be resilient and gritty (because we’re all agreed on what that means, right?); we want them to be honest and kind (OK, I know that lying is an important part of the developmental process but lets pretend we don’t know that); we also need them to be good citizens and never question government policy or the mainstream media (that will prevent them from becoming radicalised); oh, and we need them to read the Daily Mail so that they can get a fair and honest view of what’s important in the world. It might also be useful if we convince them that there’s a terrorist under every bed (or in the wardrobe – either will do) oh, and the fear of veils – easily done with a bit of classical conditioning (it’s worked pretty well for the PM).

Finally, the ability to sit through an entire film without talking and without making annoying noises with packets of sweets.

What if these traits aren’t suited to certain roles in society?

OK, so we might have to re-programme some with less desirable traits: Surgeons and CEO’s score highly on tests used to identify psychopaths so we might have to allow some of the children to torture small furry animals (we’ll leave that to the biology teachers). But what about other occupations? We still need manual labourers and they might require slightly different traits.

Oh, this is getting complicated.

It might be easier all round if we do away with natural human reproduction, we can then just grow the children in vats and programme them in batches. They can be raised in special units because parents don’t know how to raise kids anyway!

Perhaps we could even do away with names (because kids have silly names these days) and just use the Greek alphabet.

Sorted!

Character and the ‘Creeping Militarisation’ of Education.

I’ve never been conformable with the idea of character education and, to be honest, I could never quite put my finger on why. I remain a little confused about the UK government’s almost missionary zeal surrounding the view that character should be taught in our schools and that such interventions should be encompassed within the sphere of ‘British values’, as if such values are unique to the British.

Even more mind-boggling to me is what appears to be the association of character education and British values with the military, such as the use of former military personnel as a way of ‘teaching’ resilience and the spread of army cadet units within mainstream schools. This reminds me of those military schools in the United States (although my only understanding of these is informed through TV and film, think the 1981 film Taps) where teenagers are taught discipline and the expert use of an M16. Respect for our military is important, but I can’t help feeling that there is a much bigger agenda at play here, one that makes me feel more uncomfortable as each day passes.

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Certainly, it’s important to ensure that our children are safe and don’t become embroiled in dangerous extremism (whether it be from religious fundamentalism or far-right hate groups), but at the same time we shouldn’t be discouraging them from voicing their opinions, including their objection to and criticism of government policy and media spin.

In a recent leaflet produced by Camden Safeguarding Children Board entitled ‘Keeping Children and Young people Safe from Radicalisation and Extremism: A Guide for Parents and Carers’, we are asked to look out for signs of extremism in our children such as ‘A mistrust of mainstream media reports’ and appearing ‘angry at government policies, especially foreign policy’. To be honest, I frequently feel very angry regarding government foreign policy because it really does appear to have a tendency to destabilise regions and make things a whole lot worse. Does this mean that if I watch a Noam Chomsky video on YouTube I can expect a knock on the door from MI5? Incidentally, the latest ‘Character Matters’ campaign from the Jubilee Centre immediately makes me think about a recruitment drive for the security services.

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I’m not the only one who feels a little unnerved by these events. Quakers have been doing a pretty job on the character front since the 17th century, and their recent short film ‘The Unseen March’ represents an excellent summary of many of their concerns (accurate or otherwise). Of course, Quakers are pacifists so their views on military conflict are informed by their religious beliefs, nevertheless, their concerns over the ‘normalisation of war’ and the creeping military ethos in schools are both valid and shared by Quakers and non-Quakers alike. Their claim is that the growing militarisation of education represents two forms of recruitment: the recruitment of teenagers into the armed forces and the recruitment of wider society to be ‘war ready’. Ultimately, these subtle and not-so-subtle psychological nudges could result in a society where people no longer protest or criticise for fear of being labelled as extremists and ‘terrorist sympathisers’.

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While our security is paramount, the methods used to ensure it must be open to criticism and debate and young people must be allowed to engage in such debates without being labelled extremist. History has taught us that it is often the dissenters who force society to change for the better and that the young are often the drivers of such change.

While perhaps it’s too strong to claim that we are sleepwalking into some nightmarish dystopia where free speech is violently curtailed, there does appear to be an uncomfortable psychological drive to get our young people to tow the line, or else.