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Full of Character: A Christian approach to education for the digital age, by Frances Ward

11 October 2019

Dennis Richards follows an educational debate

THIS is a thought-provoking volume examining how we can best aim for today’s children to flourish. It uses as a framework a mythical family with a child, Emily, who is about to start school. The author begins by setting the context in which Emily will be educated and nurtured in a rapidly changing world.

The recent publication date has allowed the author to set the scene in a way that all her readers will immediately recognise. Stories that dominate the media leave “a bleak sense of being out of control”: climate change, Brexit, and the Trump phenomenon. “Post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year in 2016. And, as the title implies, digital automation threatens the world of work in ways that will devastate many families, dividing further the rich from the poor.

Frances Ward has not written a book that can, in any way, be used as a how-to manual for teachers. This is not a text to help directors to run a multi-academy trust. Nor will it provide guidance on how to manage under-performance, or how to access sources of funding. Her avowed aim is “to offer something different”.

Her starting-point is the work of E. D. Hirsch, best known for his emphasis on cultural literacy as the bedrock of a good education. He is a longstanding opponent of what he sees as an educational approach that has not focused enough on acquiring a “rich hinterland of cultural knowledge”. That much is familiar: the much-rehearsed critique of child-centred learning. Since Hirsch’s thinking is known to have influenced Michael Gove, you may draw your own conclusions.

Child-centred learning is traced back to Rousseau, who believed in the innate goodness and ability of children. The job of the educationist is to free the child to express what’s within. Rousseau’s best-known work is Émile, giving us a fair indication of why the author has chosen the name Emily for the focus of her own treatise on education. While the author puts Rousseau under the microscope, she by no means repudiates his way of thinking. It would be more accurate to say that it is barely half of the story.

There is a particularly helpful section in which she brings together her twin approach, best expressed by the Latin verbs educare and educere. Educere is the idea familiar to us from Rousseau, “to lead and draw out that which lies within”. Educare, on the other hand, is “to bring up, to train, to mould”: what Ward regards as a character education. Both are essential, but it is the latter that, she believes, has been neglected in recent years.

It is for that reason that the book is more educare than educere. It is a fascinating read, with an extensive bibliography and an abundance of quotations from contemporary educational thinkers.

Dennis Richards is a former head of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate, in North Yorkshire.

Full of Character: A Christian approach to education for the digital age
Frances Ward
JKP £16.99
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