Tuesday 6 December 2022

Educating Character through the Arts

In this post, Laura D'Olimpio (University of Birmingham) asks whether we can educate for good character by drawing upon the arts, presenting a new book co-edited with Panos Paris and Aidan Thompson and entitled Educating Character Through the Arts (Routledge 2022).

Laura D'Olimpio

Can we learn, morally, from artworks? Is it possible that the various multiple arts may shed light on what it means to be human and help us come to better understand what we mean by ‘good character’? How might one distinguish morally insightful from morally dubious art? And might we be able to cultivate virtuous character habits through engagement with non-narrative or non-traditional art (such as music, video games or gardening)? 

The publication of a new edited collection, Educating Character through the Arts (Routledge, 2022) seeks to probe such questions and stimulate a dialogue on the intersection between the arts, ethics, and education. Our guiding question asks how might the arts be taught in a morally educative manner?

Over the last two decades, considerable interest in three overlapping areas of aesthetics, ethics, and education has developed. First, the question of whether or not, and in what ways, artistic value and moral value are related. Second, the question of whether artworks have the capacity to teach us, about matters including human psychology, character, virtues, and vices. Third, in the burgeoning field of character education, which includes moral education, civic education, etc., the question of whether or how the arts may contribute to the formation of one’s character is among many important topics. The theoretical links between these areas and the potential for fruitful interaction between them should be immediately obvious. It is therefore all the more striking that there has been little, if any such interaction.

From antiquity to the present, the virtues—which include such excellences of character as honesty, fairness, compassion, and courage—have been widely regarded as fundamental to a human life well lived. But how might human agents—particularly the young—come to understand, or acquire, virtuous character? While many might nowadays look to empirical psychology or neuroscience for pathways to understanding and cultivating virtuous character, the arts offer a time-honoured source of insight into good and bad or virtuous and vicious human behaviour and its relationship to human flourishing.

We believe that these classical sources of reflection on character—and their contemporary counterparts—deserve closer attention. Of course, some might doubt—in an age of science with its emphasis on empirical research—the potential of works of art to serve as credible sources of ethical understanding. There exist both ancient arguments for the view that poetry and other arts are more conducive to moral corruption than improvement, and modern claims to the effect that the aesthetic purposes of the arts have little to do with moral value. It is far from clear what ethically edifying role the arts may play, if any, and thus there is a need for further critical investigation into the place of the arts in character education. 

Narrative artworks have long been considered as fruitful sources of ethical knowledge and enlightenment. Yet, the mass art of our time appears to be increasingly preoccupied with ethical questions, including questions about character, as seen in pop songs (from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Kendrick Lamar’s D.A.M.N.), television series (Breaking Bad and Succession), and Oscar-winning films like Parasite. At a time where the audience loves an antihero, we ought to delve into the educational potential of such artworks.

This edited collection, with contributions from Karen Bohlin, David Carr, Noël Carroll, Amanda Cawston, Laura D'Olimpio, John Haldane, Ian James Kidd, Jeremy Page, Panos Paris, Nathan Wildman, and James O. Young, attends to how certain artworks—such as music or television series, poetry, or video games, or even gardening—may offer ethical insights and how more traditional artforms like the novel can not only offer such insights but contribute to character formation and education.

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