The recent Sutton Trust report on character education, A Winning Personality, concludes that extroversion correlates strongly with career success. It recommends that schools focus their efforts on improving “less advantaged students” knowledge and awareness of professional careers, using “good feedback to improve pupils’ social skills,” providing “suitable training in employability skills and interview techniques” and on ensuring that attempts to improve outcomes for less advantaged students are “broad-based – focusing on wider skills as well as academic attainment”.
Like others, I feel appalled at the idea of extroversion being preached as a gospel of success. To the extent that career success might correlate with such personality traits, this is more an indictment of the shallowness of our society than a reason to force quieter, more introspective children to be as loud and brash as their more extrovert peers. Maybe instead we should do more to consider why we value such superficialities rather than rushing to lionise those who shout the loudest.
But that’s something of an aside. Amidst the noise and confusion surrounding this report, the Jubilee Centre, an organisation which exists to further the aims character education released a response subtitled, Some Curious Ideas about the Shaping of Personality as ‘Character Education’. Interestingly, Professor Kristján Kristjánsson, the author of this response, is at pains to distance the Jubilee Centre from the Sutton Trust report. The thrust of his objection seems to be that Robert de Vries and Jason Rentfrow, the authors of A Winning Personality have failed to understand that personality and character are not the same thing.

An elementary distinction is circumvented by both the report and its discontents between personality and character … Personality traits, such as extraversion and conscientiousness and others posited and measured via the proverbial Five-Factor Model, are mostly non-malleable after an early age. They are genetic up to at least 50% and otherwise shaped in early childhood. In academic parlance, those traits would be described as content-thin, non-morally evaluable, non-reason-responsive and mostly non-educable. No amount of rational dissuasion or character education is ever going to turn an introvert into an extrovert. And even categorising persons as ‘conscientious’, on the Big-Five understanding, says nothing about their moral worth (or virtue), for someone could be a conscientious member of the Hitler Youth. Character traits, in contrast, are content-thick, morally evaluable, reason-responsive and highly educable.

Now, I’m well aware that most so-called personality traits are between 50-80% heritable, although I’m less sure of the claim that the remaining factors are “shaped in early childhood”. There’s compelling evidence to suggest that peer effects in early to late adolescence are much more powerful that early childhood factors. (See Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption for details.) What was new to me was the idea that the ‘Big Five’ personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism might be distinct from ‘character traits’.
In The Cult of Personality, Annie Murphy Paul casts doubt on the idea that personality traits are stable. Whatever they’re named and however they’re tested, personality traits seem to be highly contextual. Openness to experience depends on mood, how conscientious we are depends greatly on how we feel about what we’re doing, we are agreeable in some situations and not others; we’re all different depending upon the context in which we find ourselves. So, what about the idea that character traits, or virtues, might be “content-thick, morally evaluable, reason-responsive and highly educable”? Can we really educate children to be virtuous? And what virtues should we educate them in?
In this publication, The Jubilee Centre say, “Character is a set of personal traits or dispositions that produce specific moral emotions, inform motivation and guide conduct.” They have decided the virtues we should value are courage, justice, honesty, compassion for others, self-discipline, gratitude and humility. These seem like pretty good things to be, but can we teach them? I’ve argued here that perhaps we can, by example and through asking children to persevere with challenging content, but not as a set of bolt-on lessons. But, I might be wrong. I’d love to see some evidence for the claim that character traits are “highly educable” – if anyone has any, please send it on.