Jan 29, 2015

A Short Review: "What Is Character? Virtue Ethics In Education"

For the last week and a half, I've been participating in a MOOC focused on Character Education and Virtue Ethics -- What Is Character? Virtue Ethics In Education, developed by the University of Birmingham (specifically, by the Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues), and hosted on the FutureLearn Platform.  I'd been looking forward to this relatively short course (only 2 weeks) for some time -- it's enjoyable from time to time to slip back into the role of student rather than professor, and let someone else do the course design and teaching.

I've been idly kicking around the idea of reviewing virtue-, character-, and more general ethics-focused books, courses, and other resources on this blog, and the invitation to reflect upon the course built in near the end of it presented me with an occasion to to precisely that.  So, here it goes.  Overall, I'd award it a solid B- , but that grade is partly due to the fact that it's free of charge.  I'd recommend taking it to most people interested in the subject-matters covered.

The course is split into two main sections -- "An Introduction to Character Education" in week 1, and "Character Education in Practice" in week 2.  In many respects, although week 2 has a bit less content than week 1, the more substantive and interesting content of the class is more to be found in that second week.

It's a pretty typical MOOC, as far as these things go.  There's a sequence of twelve relatively high-production, but rather short (some just 3 minutes long) videos -- the usual seated-speaker, nice-background, fairly static presentation of the central themes.  The rest of the modules over short reading selections, two 5-question quizzes, and a few that are simply discussion prompts.  In fact, each of the modules for the class includes some type of discussion prompt, and the opportunity to sound off or engage others in the comments.  There's links to a variety of resources at strategic points -- other videos, articles, white papers, and websites.   So, a decent enough mini-course MOOC as far as the format goes.

Now. . .  on to more substantive matters.  One of the key questions that has to be asked is:  Does the course do an adequate job in educating about character education and virtue ethics?  Yes, an adequate job, I'd say.  Someone who knows very little about character education will come away understanding some of the basic features and assumptions, and certain interesting British initiatives, in that area.  The more you already know, of course, the less you'll learn with a course that focuses on the basics.  The presenters are competent and engaging enough that at the very least they'll give a person who already works in the field a few new things to consider, or a few old themes to reflect upon again.

When it comes to learning about virtue ethics as such -- the real basis for character education -- its a bit more of a mixed bag.  I'll start, though, by lauding one resource in particular, though -- the overview of [a] taught course -- which is, quite simply, excellent.  As someone who has been teaching Ethics courses to college students, spending a good portion of that time gradually leading them through Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics -- and as an Aristotle scholar myself (so not only someone who has developed enough competency in Aristotle's texts, but who is also passionately interested enough in his thought, to devote time to research and publication), I can not only endorse that document. I can say I wish I'd written it, and that it gave me some additional ideas for exercises to do with my own students.

Many of the videos convey a decent enough -- though perhaps too general, because too short -- understanding of some topics in virtue ethics.  Others contain a few passages that render one a bit dubious upon hearing them.  For example, in one of the earliest videos, "What is Character Education?",  we're told:
A character, therefore, consists of a set of virtues that we possess, and these virtues in turn, produce specific moral emotions in us, inform our motivations for doing things, and guide our conduct.
That's a bit misleading, even rather reminiscent of a mistaken perspective upon virtues that I've encountered consistently in my own students (and blogged about previously).  Virtues aren't simply there in one's character, waiting to be actuated -- they have to be developed.  Often vices are what we discover already occupying their place when we engage in honest self-examination.  Given that this is a relatively easy error to fall into -- one I suspect that gets some impetus from our prevailing culture -- it seems like precisely the sort of thing one would not want to tell those attempting to learn about character education or virtue ethics early on.  The only exception would be if one was to present that sort of mistaken view, the better to immediately follow up and explicitly critique it.

One needn't multiple these sorts of examples -- and fortunately there aren't a lot of them in the course.  I would point out one bigger picture "mixed message" kind of confusion that takes away from the effectiveness and the quality of the class, in my view.  I'll put it this way:  the overall perspective of the course, the governing ethos, strikes me as that of moral theorists and practitioners who are not in any real sense Aristotelians, but who nevertheless want to use Aristotle as their only real classical reference point.  Again, I'd stress that the Overview of A Taught Class is at antipodes from what I'm noting here -- it's a clear articulation and excellent adaptation (even extension) of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

I'm all for adding additional virtues in where Aristotle missed out on something -- so gratitude works quite well.  There's plenty of classic discussions of it working out what it means for it to be a virtue.  It's also probably the trendiest moral trait in contemporary pop-culture discussions, but that needn't necessarily distract.  As we move into some of the other "virtues," we're getting into quite different territory that becomes more and more at variance with Aristotelian moral theory, though -- should we really consider "resilience" or "creativity" to be virtues, even with the caveat that we change them into "performance virtues" ("[b]ehavioural skills and psychological capacities that enable us to put our character habits into practice").

I'm particularly skeptical of their definition of phronesis -- "the overall quality of knowing what to want and what not to want when the demands of two or more virtues collide and to integrate such demands into an acceptable course of action" -- as I think any serious reader of Aristotle ought to be.  This can be in fact one function of that centrally important intellectual virtue, but it certainly isn't the whole or even the essence of it.

Why make recourse and reference to Aristotle, one might ask?  I suspect that for many of those who work in fields ranging from character education to positive psychology, it's because, when Aristotle is regarded from sufficiently far away, he's the proverbial "wax nose," that can be bent in whatever direction one chooses.  If one is going to do that, though, better to simply say:  here's my new moral theory, or my new virtue ethics, which might have some things in common with Aristotle, I think, rather than place one's projects under his mantle.

And for that matter, why Aristotle?  Why not some other classic representatives (besides the one Cicero passage everyone cites, declaring gratitude to be the parent of the other virtues!) -- or even some of the great contemporary virtue ethicists (Alasdair MacIntyre, for instance, whose After Virtue they place into their suggested further reading list)?  I suspect it's in many cases -- here I'm talking about contemporary moral theory more generally, not just this class -- because many academics simply associate the 20th century "revival" of virtue ethics (at least in secular Anglophone philosophy -- it had survived quite all right in many places) with renewed (though highly selective) attention to Aristotle's ideas.

I can't say that the instructors seemed particularly engaged with the class they'd designed, written pieces for, produced videos discussing -- the comments section was the only place where any engagement would have been possible, and they were rather absent.  That's rather surprising, and it's one of those all too frequent cases where the pedagogy of a course about education doesn't match up all that well with the content being offered.  It's just a two week class, so it's not as if someone involved in a project like this couldn't block out some time in advance.

There's a number of lecturers in the video, who one might presume would be interested to see what people made of the content they provided, and even perhaps engaging in a bit of conversation.  There's also a "Lead Educator," who presumably was to handle the day-to-day MOOC business, but he responded to a total of eight participants' posts over the course of the class -- and made comments at all just three of the days the class run (to be sure, since it's not officially over, he might make a few more). 

So, all told, would I recommend this class?  Yes, to most people, I'd say.  If it weren't free, I might limit who I would recommend it for, and reconsider how strong of a recommendation I'd give it.  But, most of the materials are decent, some are quite good, and a person can learn quite a bit from it about rudiments of character education and virtue ethics -- as well as about a number of interesting initiatives the Jubilee Center has involved itself in.  For me, perhaps what I found most informative was reading the wide range of comments from the other students taking the class -- it's given me a lot of fodder for thinking about ways virtue ethics might be better explained to more or less general audiences.

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