by Theo Poward
Full of Character: A Christian Approach to Education for the Digital Age (Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London and Philadelphia, 2019)
Before we get to the review part of this review, it is important to note something. The author of the book being reviewed, Frances Ward, is my mother. It’s probably important to put cards like that on the table. There was even discussion on our family chat about how I should refer to her in this review; I opted for ‘Mum’. After all I’ve never called her anything else.
I promise to be both fair in this review and to also not make a habit of reviewing books that are personally dedicated to me. Both seem like good rules to keep. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether I keep the first.
Full of Character is aimed at people like myself, the characters that act as avatars for the intended audience are in fact roughly based upon myself, my siblings, and our partners. This makes reading the book rather an interesting experience. It was written by a parent fully engaging with the questions of parenthood again, not as a new parent, but as someone who is expecting to the questions to take on new meaning as my generation becomes parents and my parents generation become grandparents. Such questions could not be more pertinent; there has been a debate raging about the ideas and beliefs that should underpin education and what practical consequences we can expect from a proper approach to education. Others, like Father Richard Peers, are much better placed to assess how this book fits with these debates. The questions of parenthood take on a much wider significance in this context. This book becomes more about a cultural inheritance, what are we passing on to the next generation through the systems of education that we have in place? And where might we be going wrong?
My Mum weaves these strands together through the thoughtful deployment of different styles of writing. We are introduced to the group of avatars aged in their late 20’s early 30’s at the start of the work and return to them intermittently throughout. In the meantime we are encouraged to take the time to consider specific positive character traits and how they contribute to the development of the human. A real strength of the book is how successfully refocuses education on building character. And not the prevalent and simplistic ‘character’ that is reduced to mere personality. But a rich multidimensional fullness, born out in the nine ‘fullnesses’ that give the book structure:
Education here stops being about learning to do something but learning to be something. It isn’t about acquiring skills but about acquiring humanity; life in abundance.
Mum is arguing from a Christian background, this is reflected in the book’s full title, but the lessons here are truly for everyone. A real strength of the work is reflected in the sheer range of sources that Mum draws from. A good idea is a good idea, and to solve the problems that are facing us as a society we need to be reading broadly and building connections between disparate ideas. This book goes a long way to building these connections into a web, offering a framework for others to work on.
Mum reads a lot. This is reflected in her writing. I am concerned both as a son and as a reader that the anxiety that she can’t help but feel about the state of the world comes from engaging too much with contemporary doom and gloomers, as she does with Tegmark and his work Life 3.0 (pg. 148). It’s not that authors like Tegmark aren’t interesting or smart; she engages with other authors, like McGilchrist, to great effect in a rich and creative way. It’s that engaging with authors like Tegmark means explaining his thoughts to the reader, which is less interesting than tapping into the great and rich tradition of writers that she does in the chapters tied more closely to Character. Even better would be to draw on this tradition to offer a more critical engagement with the contemporary writers like Tegmark. I felt oddly sympathetic with Craig on page 149, and wish he was given more of a voice against Tegmark.
A key lynchpin of her work is trying to encourage a re-connection with the wealth of our heritage; ‘acquiring a rich hinterland of cultural knowledge’. I can’t help but feel that too much time spent in the minds of people more narrowly focused on the issue of AI, for example, distracts from this goal. If knowledge is a stream, there might be more benefits in swimming further upstream.
This book isn’t a roadmap for how to fix the range of issues facing us. It is a re-orientation, and a timely one. My criticisms are a minor point, because the book succeeds in its aims. It comes highly recommended, and if you don’t believe me, then I encourage you to see what others are saying about it. I’m not just saying this in the hope of building a theological dynasty in the mold of the Torrances. It wouldn’t work, my mother and I don’t even share a surname. The simple truth is that the book is good, and it comes highly recommended, not just by me.
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The image at the head of this article was taken by me. I presume I’m protected from any copyright trouble.