One of the great passions of Robert Owen, the idea of building people’s character, has resurfaced in a prominent way in recent weeks.
A handful of new free schools have started this term in England and the word that their advocates use time and again to describe how they are different to what else is on offer is the idea of ‘character’.
It is perhaps not surprising that the ideas of Robert Owen, the great social reformer and co-operative advocate of the early nineteenth century, should echo again today. But when I was approached by the think tank Demos to contribute to a new collection of ideas on character, from a co-operative perspective, it was striking to me to see how his ideas have been turned on their head.
Robert Owen was fascinated by the idea of character from an early point. Penning the first of his Essays on the Formation of Character in 1812, Owen saw character as a set of habits, behaviours and beliefs that were formed by the environment in which people operated. Character emerged from people’s circumstances, but could in turn shape or reinforce the context and community that people lived in.
What Owen stressed was the formative role of a nurturing, social environment in which people experience co-operation. Today’s more shallow versions see character as what you develop when exposed to relentless competition – a John Wayne screen model and a license for education based on market ideology rather than children’s well-being and development.
I write more on this in a feature for Co-operative News