A question of character

At Friendship Works we’ve been revisiting our long-term vision over the last few weeks. Organisations have a ‘vision’ statement to explain what they’re aiming to achieve, but also to provide a clear direction for their energy and resources. A clear vision is useful for any project, whether it’s John F. Kennedy’s proposal to put a man on the moon or my dream for a well ordered drawer of socks. Understanding exactly where you want to be is important if you are to have any hope of getting there.

All charities should have a long-term vision of what they are aiming to achieve, and the effect that they hope to have on the people that they support. At charities that support children’s emotional and social development we often talk about improving self-confidence, self-esteem, resilience, and an internal sense of wellbeing. However, sometimes we forget that confident and resilient young people don’t necessarily use those attributes for good. What is often missing in our vision for young people is any mention of ‘goodness’ or morality.

I started thinking more about this after a meeting last week with  Jonathan Carr (Chair of FUN in Action in Brighton) who lent me a copy of an article by Richard Reeves, ‘A Question of Character’*. The concept of character, Reeves suggests, is rather old fashioned. The Victorians ruined it by linking it with class. Good character, they seemed to believe, was closely linked to social standing, passed down the hereditary line from ‘chap’ to ‘chap’. It was also something that was defined by the upper classes and handed down as a template for the lower orders to aspire to (but never, perhaps, quite reach).

The legacy of the Victorian view of character is that, for some time, we have been loathe to set out the moral standards that we want young people to aspire to. We are worried that it would seem patronising and culturally insensitive. Yet deep moral values are rooted in common human values, which are not bound to a specific class or culture. The expression of a value may vary between social groups, but the underlying value does not.

I would also assert that our underlying concept of what makes for a ‘good’ and well functioning human being does not vary between class and culture. Reeves provides a somewhat academic definition of character as ‘a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one’s own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification’.

In other words, someone with strong character has the confidence and skill to write their own life story, the maturity to take responsibility, and isn’t swayed by shallow impulses. There is nothing classist here. These are all useful characteristics, whether studying for University, bringing up a child single-handed, or setting up as a freelance plumber.

As we review our organisational vision at Friendship Works we need to ensure that our objectives for the young people we support are as clear as they can be.  This doesn’t mean that we need a prescriptive vision, a template into which all young people should fit. On the contrary, we want to help young people to build the internal skills that they need to be wonderfully unique. But we may need to be bolder in defining the foundation that allows for such flourishing.

And yes, it may even be called ‘character’.