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.
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.
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’.
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.