One of the great passions of Robert Owen, the idea of building people’s character, has resurfaced in a prominent way over the past month.
A handful of new free schools have opened this term in England, and their advocates use one word time and again to describe how they are different from the rest: ‘character’.
It is perhaps not surprising that the ideas of Robert Owen, the great social reformer and co-operative advocate of the early 19th century, should echo again today. But when I was approached by the think-tank Demos to contribute to a 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. But today’s more shallow versions see character as what you develop when exposed to relentless competition — a licence for education based on market ideology rather than children’s well-being and development.
So how did Owen set out to build character? One answer was by making it visible. Black, blue, yellow and white were the daily colours assigned by Owen to workers in his pioneering mills at New Lanark. Black was bad behaviour, blue indifferent, yellow good and white was excellent — “by which arrangement”, Owen explained in his memoirs, “I had the conduct of each registered to four degrees of comparison during every day of the week, Sundays excepted, for every year they remained in my employment.”
On January 1st, 1816, Owen opened the New Institution for the Formation of Character — two buildings financed out of company profits for learning and leisure, including the world’s first workplace nursery, or creche. As soon as children were able to walk, they were taken into the creche and, at the age of three, they entered the infant school. The teachers were specifically instructed to be kind and encouraging to instil self-confidence.
In an article for Co-operative News, published in April 1876, ET Craig compared Owen to the Greek philosopher Plato for his stress on the value of singing, dancing and culture. The “principal tests” of education in Owen’s system were not exam results but “graceful bearing, self-possession and politeness”. Visiting New Lanark long after Owen’s time, ET Craig met one resident who had been educated in the nursery and schools from the age of 15 months and heard that the changes effected in the habits and characters of the people were very striking, and “removed all causes of dispute and litigation”.
The keys to progress therefore lay, Owen believed, in environmental planning and in education. “Any general character,” he concluded, “from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of proper means.”
Such views are echoed in the work of modern academics who stress that, in the right environment, co-operation is instinctive and benefits both the individual and the group that they are part of.
Michael Tomasello, the development psyychologist, has put this to the test with very young children. Drop something in front of a two year old and she is likely to pick it up for you. This is not just learned behaviour, he argues. Young children are naturally co-operative.
According to Elinor Ostrom, economics Nobel Prize winner, co-operative behaviour involves:
• Learning from interactions with others about the extent to which other people will co-operate with you
• Learning to recognise those who are trustworthy in cooperation and those who are not
• Co-operating with others that you trust
• Building a reputation for being trustworthy (including resisting short-term gain in favour of long-term benefit)
• Punishing those who have cheated, or not reciprocated, in the past
• Working in a time frame that extends beyond the immediate present.
If that sounds like being fair, perhaps it is no surprise. As Geoff Mulgan pointed out in a thinkpiece for Co-operatives Fortnight, these characteristics “are intimately bound up with morality and with our fundamental relationships with the world around us. Seen through this lens, the morality of co-operation is about both what we do and what we don’t do.
“On the plus side, it involves the ability to empathise with others, putting our egos in their proper place, and feeling a sense of connectedness and responsibility to others.
“The converse is that to be a good co-operator you have to avoid many of the deadly sins, like pride and greed, and learn the self-discipline that’s needed to restrain impulsive behaviour, anger and violence, and the tendency we all have to be oversensitive to criticism or neglect.”
We are all born, Mulgan says, with the ability to co-operate, just as we are all (or nearly all) born with the ability to sing or to run. And, as with singing or running, our innate abilities need to be cultivated and trained if we are to become good co-operators. Co-operation requires the formation, through various forms of socialisation, of associative character.
The challenge is that this is not quite how character has been understood in recent times. For the past 40 years, it has all been seen as, well… too 1960s. Getting on has meant getting ahead of those around you. We now live in a “winner takes all” economy — in other words outright inequality justified as incentives for progress.
It is not just in economic thinking that competition has won out, but in educational practice too — with tests, qualifications, selection and rewards oriented towards individual achievement. Employers complain that young people are coming into the labour market lacking the soft skills of team work and emotional resilience they need.
The other curriculum young people pick up is the world of commercial culture. As Agnes Nairn and I chart in our book, “Consumer Kids”, children spend more than twice as much time in front of screens as they do in the classroom, and many of the commercial values of the “winner takes all” culture are subtly imbibed and spill over into the relationships they have with friends and family. It is not enough therefore to talk about character as if we can simply mould the individual to improve the world around them.
As Robert Owen recognised, co-operation is a quintessentially social characteristic. We have to create cultures of co-operation that can encourage and support such characteristics.
In fact, the co-operative ethical values are as good a checklist of co-operative character as you can find: being open, being honest, taking responsibility and caring for others. The fact that these values are now in use in more than 150 schools in England that have converted to
co-operative status represents a far more fundamental potential shift than the one claimed by flag-wavers for free schools and market solutions to education.
But for schools across the UK that don’t have that choice as yet, we need more than co-operative governance. We need to reaffirm and encourage the emergence of a full co-operative curriculum for learning and a pedagogy for schools and workplaces that offers a genuine way to build the grit and character the world will need, in an age of inequality and environmental stress. To live up to the promise that Robert Owen identified, we need to renew his ideas of a co-op environment for work, life and learning.
• Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK. He is a contributor to the Demos Collection ‘The Character Inquiry’, 2011.