Character – John Wayne or Robert Owen?

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

One thought on “Character – John Wayne or Robert Owen?

  1. I’m interested in the comment about relentless competition being a relatively modern definition of the character-building process, Ed, based on John Wayne type characterisation. That is new to me. I always felt that instilling competition as a desirable character trait came straight from a competitive gene. It is demonstrated in the working but more particularly the middle and upper classes. In the two latter class groups, I have noted purely from my own experience that competitiveness is encouraged to a point which the working classes would consider quite rude. In a working class environment it is desirable to excel, but trampling on your neighbour, in whatever metaphoric way, for gain, is looked down on. Perhaps competitiveness is the driver for social mobility that the Co-operative movement seeks to replace with a more noble trait. Character building stuff is diversity of experience. Competitiveness is generic I think and leads to better performance, However, sharing the spoils of success is the sticking point for most.
    I believe the early agnostic Christians believed that those who could reach those heights of generosity lived on a higher level and were heaven-bound. This belief and also believing that women were equal being the main reasons why the Romans made sure they imposed their own version of Christianity pronto and buried the agnostic church. But those fundamental beliefs keep popping up in all sorts of ideals. Maybe we’ll reach a point through the work we do where we will all recognise that to enjoy the respect from success but share the spoils does actually result in a happier way of living.

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