Educating Character Through the Arts

University of Birmingham Conference Park

University of Birmingham

19-21 July 2018

While the field of moral or character education has been growing in recent years, the role of the arts in this area has remained relatively unexplored, even though it has a venerable history, from Plato’s banishment of the poets from his ideal republic, and the artistically informed moral theories of the Enlightenment, both here and in the Continent, to non-Western thought.

Thanks to the generous support of the British Society of Aesthetics, the Mind Association, and the John Templeton Foundation, via the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, the “Educating Character Through the Arts” conference, which took place between 19th-21st July 2018 at the University of Birmingham, brought together academics and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. Around fifty delegates in total tackled important questions on the aforementioned theme; the conference comprised four parallel seminar sessions including over thirty talks, two symposia, and talks by four illustrious key note speakers––Karen Bohlin (Montrose School), Noël Carroll (CUNY), Matthew Kieran (Leeds), and James O. Young (Victoria, BC).

Karen Bohlin argued that in an age of new media and short attention spans, poetry––both the reading and writing of it––offers a very promising way into cultivating the ability to concentrate and attend to objects, developing important features of character, and offering emotional education as well as solace in times of despair. Noël Carroll explored the mechanism of ‘criterial prefocusing’ whereby art cultivates emotional intelligence, thereby potentially contributing to an important aspect of character education. Matthew Kieran examined despair as a staple of some highly creative persons, but which at the same time in many of its guises, and under certain conditions, is an impediment to creativity, and so a creative vice. And James O. Young considered the empirical evidence for claims made by philosophers concerning the morally salubrious effects of reading literature, concluding that those of us who are optimistic on this front need not give up our optimism.

Other issues addressed over the three days of the conference included the importance of, and different ways in which a variety of art-forms––including literature, video games, architecture, film, music––contribute to moral learning and enhance our characters; the success or failure of different interventions using artworks as part of character education initiatives; different school models’ approaches to character education; and many others. Discussion was lively and collegial, and delegates had the chance to benefit from a combination of a diverse programme of talks with plenty of opportunities for informal discussion, so that hopefully everyone took something away with them.

The organisers hope that while this is one of the first conferences on the role of the arts and aesthetics in character education, it will only be one of many more to come, and that the dialogues that began in (what was a surprisingly warm) Birmingham, are ongoing. Details of the conference, including the programme, can be found online here.

Panos Paris

Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham

Photo credit: Gunnvi Sæke Jokstad