The John F. Templeton Foundation has given $850,000 to the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri in St. Louis for the creation of “an online, interactive resource for character education.” “One key goal of the project,” the UMSL blog reports, “will be the establishment of a sustainable, trustworthy source of research information that illuminates what positively shapes children’s character, values and virtues.” The Center’s general purpose is “to increase the quality, visibility and commitment of developing and implementing effective character education in the United States.”
“Character” and “citizenship” are the sorts of words – like “excellence,” “civility,” and “leadership” - that are ideal for ideological appropriation. They’re just vague enough to be easily drained of meaning and for politically useful sentiments to be inserted. In this case, the flexibility of “character” very much works in Templeton’s individual and organizational favor as he/they pursue rightwing political goals.
Aligning themselves with “character education” serves as a distraction and a smokescreen. It draws attention away from, for example, questions about the sort of character shown by the fact that Pennsylvanian John Templeton was one of the strongest financial backers of the hateful and rights-denying Proposition 8 in California (as well as a consistent opponent of LGBT rights generally). It also diverts attention from the rightwing ideology of the Foundation itself and the selfish, rapacious, and authoritarian values it promotes:
Although ostensibly nonpartisan, the Templeton Foundation has a special place in its great, bleeding philanthropic heart for “free enterprise,” having given cash awards to historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and economist Milton Friedman, as well as the following conservative organizations: Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Federalist Society and the National Association of Scholars. On its website, the Templeton Foundation announces that it “supports a wide range of programs and research initiatives to study the benefits of competition, specifically how free enterprise and other principles of capitalism can, and do, benefit the poor.”Nowhere in the account of Templeton’s involvement with character education is there mention of the Foundation’s funding and support of rightwing organizations around the world or their awards for AGW denial, or discussion of how their contribution to this educational effort might be connected to their larger political agenda.
The idea of educating for character usefully serves to reinforce the false notion that systemic problems are really due to individual failings. Melinda C. Bier, the Center’s associate director, suggests for example that the “corruption in financial industries” amongst other so-called scandals shows the need for “renewing character education as a national education priority”: “[I]t is more important than ever that we invest in understanding how to effectively support the development of character strengths in our young people.”
Because of the openness of the concept of character, efforts to promote character education are fundamentally vulnerable to efforts to promote the status quo by defining character in terms that register compliance with the system and emphasizing those values most suited to it. The Center’s scientific agenda is described as follows:
The center’s researchers will conduct systematic reviews – similar to research in the field of medicine that summarizes research to yield “evidence” for what interventions have scientifically demonstrated results – and dig deeply into understanding specific character traits such as diligence, honesty and future-mindedness.(I’m not sure why “evidence” is in quotes, but it’s amusing.) Few would argue with honesty as a worthwhile orientation to promote.* But how do diligence and future-mindedness make this top three? In educating students to be “good people,” traits others might consider to be amongst the most important – compassion and the desire to end suffering, a commitment to justice and equality, a willingness to challenge authorities,… - don’t rise in their view to the same level of importance as diligence?
Fundamental questions about how schools can develop good people, not simply good students, include:
• How can schools foster honesty that becomes a lifelong individual value?
• What promotes and sustains the diligence that students will need when they enter the workforce?
• What are the best practices in helping students develop the characteristics of future-mindedness, like goal-setting?
• How can schools most effectively impact the long-term development of good character in students?
The importance of diligence and future-mindedness is largely derivative – tied to their actual content. Martin Luther King, Jr., was diligent and future-minded; Stalin was diligent and future-minded. I think everyone would prefer that Stalin had been a little less diligent and future-minded.
From a moral standpoint, then, the choice of diligence and future-mindedness to represent the most important character traits seems unjustified and odd. But the emphasis on traits like these serves two purposes for rightwing organizations like Templeton. First, they’re traits capitalists desire in workers. As the Center’s “fundamental questions” about character education make explicit, the diligence sought is that diligence “that students will need when they enter the workforce.” When diligence is bought and sold, concerns about the moral character of the larger enterprise to which it’s contributing are made irrelevant: workers’ diligence serves a good purpose as defined not by any human standard of morality but by bosses and stock values. People taught to value and offer their diligence and future-mindedness generically are very useful to the powerful.
As with research into gratitude, the emphasis on these traits as constitutive of character is also useful to the Right as an ideological tool. In a context of vast and growing inequality, economic insecurity, and political repression, “educating” young people to believe that their condition is in large part due to their personal character – specifically to their lack of diligence and future-mindedness – serves to quell resistance and foster compliance. It encourages people to see those who are poor and struggling as lacking the traits of “character” necessary to succeed. In this way, the individualizing nature of character education in general is further reinforced, making it even more useful for conservatives.
To be clear: I’m not arguing or even suggesting that the people at the UMSL Center for Character and Citizenship share the rightwing orientation and goals of Templeton – the individual or the foundation – or are involved in a conspiracy to push Templeton’s agenda. It’s just another example of the subtle and inconspicuous ways Templeton funding, in a relatively innocuous guise, can shift research and educational priorities in this direction.
* Though many would argue that capitalism, imperialism, or other oppressive and exploitative social relations impede it and promote dishonesty on a massive scale.