Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Meaning of Character

A kind commentator dropped by and left a comment in one of the older posts, pointing out that the approach I wanted to promote - a practical education built around the humanities - is what he calls building of character. In the work he does, he focuses on Character and Competence, side by side, which makes abundant sense. 

Indeed, character is a high sounding word with a lot of legacy, most of it going back to colonial times. So, talking about character in my work, which is mostly done in developing countries, is not going to be straightforward, without explaining what it is going to be about. But, such explanation is needed and timely, because one could perhaps claim with justification that the technocratic nature of education is the reason why we have the social problems we have.

But even before we go into the discussion about character, it is important to state, perhaps re-state, the case why we need to look at humanities seriously. Those who believe that humanities education is now superfluous - students go to college only to learn technical skills that could be used in a job (and, indeed, anyone can do humanities once they have got a job) - are working with an underlying assumption that history has ended. Despite all the evidence on the contrary, they take the social system we live inside as a given. There is nothing more to be thought about how we live, or how we should be living. What only matters is how to do the jobs we have, better - how to build better machines, how to write better code, how to start smart businesses, how to help customers better - and this would be enough.

The point is, of course, that though this view is presented as a matter of fact, descriptive, one - isn't this what you see around you, they ask - but this is an inherently normative position. It is not that this is what we see around us - that history has ended and we have reached that happily-ever-after moment - but this is what we are told we are supposed to be seeing. There is no possibility that we could create a better system, politically or economically, and it is futile to think about it. The only history one needs to know about is that Capitalism has defeated the evil empire of Soviet Union and that is that. 

At this very moment, the overarching feeling is confusion, in most of our lives. We can indeed shut off our senses and drown ourselves in one kind of pleasure or other for a while, but the confusion, the sense of loss, keeps coming back double-quick. It does not help that the gap between the economic good news and personal well-being keep expanding - we feel more indebted just when the policy-makers do victory dance of debt reduction, more hopelessly out-of-use just when the newspapers celebrate job recovery. As the communities that helped us and gave us culture wither away, we choose to make up for our cultural poverty with material feel-good - a fancy computer replaces our parents, a mobile phone our belongingness and a car, our responsibilities. But this is not a feeling of equilibrium, that history has ended and we can live like this forever. We do feel the need for imagination, social, empathic, communitarian, when we can not postpone the bewitching question - how to live - any more. At that point, the dissonance is even more acute - the pessimists, who believe that we are condemned to live like this, claim to be the optimists, and the optimists who think human beings can do better are labeled pessimists - and the need to re-imagine is ever more urgent.

This is where character comes into play. The words such as resilience, empathy, imagination, integrity, confront us - each needing a new meaning perhaps, but each needing embodiment. All that we have started taking for granted, like freedom, stability etc., seem vulnerable - because of some gathering cloud around some corner - but also open - pregnant with new possibilities and meaning. The technocratic solutions for better life - all that sharing economy and crowdsourced knowledge - illuminate themselves both as dangerous threats and alluring possibilities, leaving the master-key to our judgement. Character, rather than mere strategy, decides what we will be, who we will be.

This is, even if broad, the definition of character that a humanities-based education should work towards. It is about achieving mastery over own life, as well as engaging and shaping the communities we live in. This is about not giving in to a lazy conception of history, but having the courage to imagine it. It is about escaping the temptation of drowning in rhetoric and being able to act and change. And, finally, and crucially, this is about being concerned about more than oneself, taking barriers as opportunities and privileges as responsibilities, and being able to contribute to collective life.

 






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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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