Former British Education Secretary encourages character education

Nicky Morgan, now a member of parliament in the United Kingdom, spoke to students at Mangus Church of England Academy about all of the opportunities that schools have to form character. However, her passion for building character extends far beyond the school walls.

Morgan’s interest in character extends beyond public-speaking engagements. She authored Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character, a book that explores the rewards students reap when schools concentrate on teaching character.

The Newark Advertiser covered Morgan’s visit to the school, located in the town of Newark-on-Trent. She received an invitation to speak after Anna Martin, a teacher, attended her remarks at a recent conference. The former education secretary’s focus on character made Martin think she would have valuable insights for the students.

Morgan praised Mangus’s work on character and encouraged the students, telling them that, “[I]t’s really good to see the focus you have got on it at Magnus and I think it will stand you in good stead and set you apart from the rest.”

Students took advantage of the opportunity to pose a range of questions to Morgan, with one in particular asking about sound ways to develop one’s character.

Morgan offered this constructive advice on that topic, “Find good people who are role models, perhaps outside of school . . .” She also pointed to the power of role models we don’t know personally: “Things you read and literature are really important, and understanding and reading about people with good character and taking responsibility for your character are also important.”

She also highlighted the importance of extra-curricular activities: ““It’s not just about formal education . . . if you think about everything else you pick up from your time in education, the people you meet,, both your parents and members of staff here and everybody else, and some of you may be involved in extra-curricular activities—they are really important, all of these things you do at other times in your life.”

Finally, in a nod to the discipline that is a fundamental trait of any person of character, Morgan reflected on some of the points in her career when she had doubts about a career in public service. She reminded students that, “The question is how you deal with life’s disappointments as well as life’s successes.”

Morgan’s recommendations regarding role models fit well with the analysis of Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter. In The Death of Character, he writes, “Implicit in the word ‘character’ is a story. It is a story about living for a purpose that is greater than the self. Though this purpose resides deeply within, its origins are outside the self and so it beckons one forward . . .” These are the stories of role models that we know personally or encounter in history and literature.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote The Road to Character as part of his own journey in identifying inspirational historical figures and telling their stories. Any of his ten chapters could form the substance of a lively discussion among high school students and animate their pursuit of character.

Parent advice books from foreign countries big sellers

A flood of parenting advice books are offering a wide range of foreign child-rearing models, a movement that started with the Chinese “Tiger Mom” style and morphed into a publishing genre that now includes guidance from the Dutch, Danish, Germans, Russians and others.

The Wall Street Journal highlighted the growing number of advice books from across the Atlantic hitting the shelves in numerous countries, from The Danish Way of Parenting to the Dutch title The Happiest Kids in the World.

According to the news site:

“The Danish Way of Parenting” says boys and girls thrive with skolefritidsordning—a “free-time school” where children play until dinner. Rights to the book about raising confident children have been sold to 23 countries. It hit the best-seller list in Italy and is in its ninth U.S. printing.

Another Nordic-loving book claims a different secret: friluftsliv, or “open-air living,” encouraging children to climb trees and get dirty playing outdoors in what Swedish-American author Linda Åkeson McGurk calls their “mud kitchen.” Her book, “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather,” was just released in the U.S. and is bound for a publishing house in Poland.

“They are a familiar pitch—I say, ‘All right, what country? Got it. Send it along,” Marnie Cochran, editor at Ballantine Books, told the WSJ, adding that she’s received manuscripts from Finland and Japan, among others. “There are lots of countries left in the world that we haven’t explored, that we can perhaps learn from or exploit.”

The growing foreign parenting genre is fueled in large part by the popularity of the 2011 book by Amy Chua titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which stressed raising children with the type of discipline and high expectations Chinese parents employ. That book is now available in dozens of languages and spawned a sitcom in China.

Chua said she’s since received pitches from parenting writers espousing the benefits of Mormon, Brazilian, and other child-rearing styles that she forwarded to her agent.

Some titles—including The Happiest Kids in the World, which describes how laid-back Dutch parents offer chocolate sprinkles on toast for breakfast and allow teens “romantic sleepovers” at home—are taking off, with copies now published in Finnish, Italian, and Dutch, with Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Chinese versions on the horizon.

Another—Achtung Baby—which promotes the self-reliance in German children that encourages them to handle sharp knives and light matches—was recently purchased by publishers in Russia, Poland, and the U.K., where it’s expected to hit shelves in January.

Others, meanwhile, have flopped, such as Tanja Maier’s Shapka, Babuska, Kefir, which translates to Winter Hat, Grandmother, Kefir.

The only folks willing to publish the book, which dotes on Russian mothers who keep up their beauty routines despite the rigors of motherhood and push their children to excel at their interests, were Russian publishers.

“It turns out, the Russians wanted to hear somebody saying something good about them,” Maier, a 41-year-old from Arizona who moved to Moscow in the 1990s, told the WSJ.

There’s another country that’s been conspicuously absent from the expanding parent advice book market: the United States.

Publishers told the WSJ they can’t name a single parenting book from the U.S. to gain the type of international acclaim as those from Europe and Asia.

“I don’t know that anyone’s written a book about helicoptering,” Cochran said.

Why the interest in what other cultures do? Maybe it’s because over half of American parents, according to the Culture of American Families report from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, are worried that they aren’t investing enough time and energy in their children. And a similar percentage believe that there’s something wrong with their kids, whether it be obesity, or some kind of learning disability.

With such widespread anxiety, reading about how other parents cope might be a search for guidance. And while many American parents are working to apply what they learn from the foreign offerings, some are finding the unique perspectives from other countries don’t always translate to life in the U.S.

Kate Desmond, a freelance writer from Dallas, told the WSJ she’s tried to embrace the unsupervised outdoor play in The Danish Way of Parenting, but worries about her kids playing in busy city streets. She also took the book’s advice on avoiding ultimatums, but admits following the guidelines isn’t always as easy as it seems.

“Just this morning, I bribed a 3-year-old to get in the car with a piece of candy corn,” Desmond said.

So perhaps reading about Danish parents and their children ends up being a way of becoming yet more guilty, anxious, and unfulfilled.