Saturday, 17 August 2013

This Year's A Level results - Character or "Damned Merit"?

In response to the publication of this year’s A level results, there has been some comment about the slight downward shift in the number of top grades achieved.  This comment is in the context of Governments of both parties having placed emphasis on qualifications that are directly applicable to getting a job and thereby useful to the economy.  It would therefore be safe to say that the political class takes a utilitarian view of education.

It was not always thus.  Our public schools and oldest universities placed emphasis on the development of character rather than simply teaching to the test.  There was a belief that teaching the liberal arts and games strengthened the virtues and nurtured a class of gentlemen to govern an empire.

To many that may seem a hopelessly romantic and outdated view for surviving in today’s competitive global economy.  If a moment is taken to reflect however, it is not at all clear cut that an approach that only emphasises success in measurable academic targets in so-called “relevant” subjects is beneficial socially or economically.

Before I go any further, I must make clear that I support a shift from coursework to exams and I support transparency in school results being published, so parents can make an informed choice.  This is only one side of the coin though. 

It is not just about achieving targets and that is precisely because the workplace, in both the public and private sector has become dominated by such an approach.  If we neglect character and focus on achieving targets by whatever means, then we will be at risk producing another generation that will produce another banking crisis.  The bankers, it seems to most of us, looked simply at achieving targets to gain bonuses and forgot about integrity and ethics.  Many feel, with some justification, it was this dishonesty that led to the whole charade collapsing.

We rather need to nurture a generation that places value on ethics and virtues.  This is why religious education and studies are so important and should be included as part of the baccalaureate.  In parenthesis, it should be mentioned that the multiculturalist approach to religious education is not necessarily helpful in giving our young a firm grounding in our culture’s values.  Perhaps more would be achieved for treating other cultures fairly by teaching that the one who taught the story of the Good Samaritan was the speaker of absolute truth rather than muddying the waters by suggesting all beliefs are equally valid.  That however is for another blog!

The reason the Western economies have historically been strong is not just because they are competitive, but because they are known to be predictable and not corrupt.  Contracts are honoured, bribery does not distort the market and the law is enforced impartially.  It is not by encouraging a ruthless pursuit of success and hitting targets that perpetuates such values.  It is rather by having an education system that strengthens values, such as honesty and integrity.  The more we erode our values, the less of an edge the Western economies will have in this competitive world.

The message should be that achieving an exam result fairly and without cheating is more valuable than the result itself in many ways.  Character is developed through failures as well as successes and it is often a better man who does not achieve so much academically, but is a more rounded person and is able to relate well to others than someone who focuses only on achieving the result at the expense of the other areas of developing their person.

The virtues are emphasised through learning the liberal arts.  For example literature and drama help students to empathise and understand how other people might think, through learning about an imaginary world of people’s feelings and thoughts.

To some this may seem hopelessly woolly thinking, but this nation was at its greatest in worldly terms when it had a firm foundation in its own faith and an education system based around the liberal arts.

Lord Melbourne snobbishly dismissed “damned merit” in relation to the honours system, but perhaps today, with our emphasis on meritocracy - suggesting that succeeding alone is what counts morally - we ought to reconsider whether we have fallen into the trap of a new type of snobbery?  This snobbery is one that suggests ability alone is morally valuable and has forgotten about integrity and character.

So perhaps at the time of year when exam results are being published, it is worth reminding the younger generation that it is not simply the winning, but it is how you win that counts.

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