Kaos Pilots: The Cultivation of Character

What would unify the curriculum at Kaos Pilots? One way, which I explored in yesterday’s post, would be to treat the education as articulating and specifying what, concretely, making a difference means for me. A second way would be to explicitly teach the cultivation of character. This is called character education.

As far back as antiquity, the question of how to teach young men to be excellent or outstanding, the further question of what virtue was, whether it could be taught, and which should be taught, and other related questions were considered and debated with the utmost seriousness. And as recently as the eighteenth century, Enlightenment reform pedagogues sought to ground education on character and citizenship: a good education would furnish the pupil with training in character development and would instill in him a commitment to being a good citizen.

However, arguing that there are precedents for character education does not entail that it is a worthwhile project. But then I have a hard time imagining what the objection would be. Since the rise of industrial education, we have tried, with limited success and very mixed results, to formalize, begging off the teaching of the virtues or a consideration of final aims. Formalization involves teaching a discrete set of skills, competencies, approaches, and methods with the idea that these are utilizable, frictionlessly, in different situations that one encounters. Bracketed is both the thick ethical conceptions and the final aims to which our talents are put. Not weighing in on whether skill in public speaking must be based upon a sound moral character, we end up breeding sophists and consultants. Not considering whether facility with computer languages should be grounded on an inculcation in virtuous conduct, we are nonplussed to find malicious producers of computer viruses living among us. Ours, in the final analysis, is a world full of careers typifying ‘bullshit work’ (David Graeber) with those involved in bullshit work, often on their own account, manifestly wasting their lives.

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If it can be concluded that character is worth teaching, then what it is and how might it be taught? Below, I only sketch an answer to the first question. How it can be taught is a much larger question and one not readily answered in prose but rather by living example.

A person’s character consists in

  • habits, dispositions, and a range of virtues and vices;
  • manners, e.g., being a good host, writing a fine introduction, etc.;
  • patterns of thought, i.e., the sorts of things one often thinks about;
  • desires, i.e., the objects one wants;
  • beliefs, i.e., the sorts of things one takes to be true about oneself and the world;
  • values, i.e., the manifold weightings, significances, cares, importances, etc.; and
  • integration, i.e., the way in which all the elements above fit together or do not.

Apropos integration, one can make an ‘on the whole’ statement about another: ‘On the whole, John is very hardy. On the whole, Jane’s character, being ill-proportioned, is decidedly ugly.’

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Why adopt character education at Kaos Pilots today? One reason is that few schools do it and fewer still do it well. But this is not a sufficient reason. Another reason is that, during our unsettled time, there may be nothing more important to the possibility of human flourishing than cultivating the wherewithal because of which one is able to do or say the right thing, here and now.

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