Character and values with Cristina Odone

18 May

“I hate many American things, but I admire their confidence. America has something we don’t. They know their values. But they also know how to assimilate,” said Cristina Odone at Swindon Festival of Literature.

Cristina is a professional thinker (director of the new Centre for Character and Values at the Legatum Institute, former editor of the Catholic Herald and deputy editor of the New Statesman) who’s fed up with us British being all wishy-washy and apologetic about our values.

“I’m not saying we have to judge. I’m not saying Western values are the best; we are shaped by Judaeo-Christian values. But they are ours and we should stand by them.”

The values in question are Aristotelian in origin, Christianised by saints Aquinas and Augustine: courage, obedience, charity and scholarship. (It is interesting that Cristina chooses to interpret ‘agape’ as ‘charity’ over ‘love’, and misses out ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ completely from the Christian triplet.)

The talk begins with a tale of two men, two Muslims, both British. Asad Shah, a community-minded Scottish-Pakistani shopkeeper, was murdered ostensibly in extremist retaliation for Easter goodwill messages on social media. The other was Mohammed Emwazi or ‘Jihadi John’, the British-Arab ISIS terrorist. Cristina believes Shah was in possession of good character and strong values, while Emwazi was rootless and felt no connection to his community.

She’s looked at a lot of research into captured ISIS fighters and says this disconnection is the common theme, not fanatical religious belief, with these extremists brought up in Britain.

“Most of them have very little knowledge of Islam,” she explained. “Most of them had a life crisis. They were scrabbling around for a system that could support them and give them identity. We failed them. They didn’t have strong families ties. An absence of social connections is part of the 21st century existence.”

The problem lies not with the family but the way our culture has developed in the last 50 years, she said. The real bogey man was American professor of ethics Joseph Fletcher. He argued that ultimate good or true virtue did not exist. “Overnight,” said Cristina, “there was no such thing as good and evil, no such thing as right and wrong.”

We now have, she believes, morality led by relativism and ‘wrong-headed multiculturalism’; Britain will accept any practice – such as the subjugation of women – if it is practiced by people from a different culture. We have lost faith in our value system; any teaching of it is seen as imperialism.

Cristina’s answer is in a character and values teaching programme, through parenting classes and schools, ‘instilling confidence and courage and self-sacrifice.’ She is also in the process of co-designing an anti-slavery programme, ‘Serve First’, where they place the ‘brightest’ graduates into corporations to investigate their supply chain.

She praises the current education minister Nicky Morgan for seeking to introduce character and values into the school curriculum, as a pure focus on academia is not giving children the rounded education they need.

She is less enthusiastic about cuts to children’s centres; in fact it would be fair to say she’s rather cross, seeing their closure as a cutting of the safety net replacing the lost support of the extended family.

Though I’m in agreement that our country has a problem with home-grown terrorists, a disconnection with society, a focus on academia that is too narrow for our schools and the values she names are laudable, I worry about the causes and solutions she offers.

A disconnection with our local community has, for me, nothing to do with character and values, and more to do with our increasingly mobile lives and threats to community centres – pubs, sports facilities, the relevance of the local church (perhaps the same or less so for mosques, gurdwaras, temples, etc), local shops, post offices – where people have opportunities to meet and get to know each other.

I have, for the past 18 years lived in a village of one type or another. In the first, I only knew one neighbour. In the second, I met people through the pub then helping out on bonfire night, sharing keys and pet duties. When we moved to our current hamlet, we had a house-warming because the only shared amenity was a post box and now defunct phone box. We knew our neighbours would be strangers unless we reached out to them. And we wanted to because it can be a lonely existence otherwise (and who would feed our cats whilst on holiday?). Because of the various trials and tribulations of our estate landlords, much of the hamlet is empty or owned by weekenders which feels like yawning dark holes in our community. We are campaigning for a speed limit and signs bearing the name of our hamlet so motorists (parents careering to school/nursery or commuters to the nearby railway station) may realise they are entering a community with kids and pets  – and curb their speed. They may even think twice before littering.*

My son attends the local school. Occasionally he will share (or I will overhear) his friends’ ‘unenlightened’ comments about homosexuality, disability or refugees. The parents of these kids – ambitious, caring – are not the kind you would think need parental skills classes. And the school is Church of England controlled, awash with good Christian values, one might think.

But I would not recommend classes in character and values. This sounds like social control. The opinions expressed by children are already an uncritical repetition handed down through families. As a once-long-ago religious education teacher and philosophy graduate, I’m far more in favour of lessons in critical thinking, of exploring – without judgement – different points of view and deciding for oneself, within a Christian (Humanist/Muslim, etc) ethical framework, what makes sense. This is something Cristina neglects (unless I misheard) – wisdom. The ability to reject extremism because it just doesn’t make sense; having a well thought-through robust idea of who you are and what you stand for. I believe the world would be a better place with more of this.

According to Wikipedia, Jihadi John “attended St Mary Magdalene Church of England primary school, and later Quintin Kynaston School. In 2006, he went to the University of Westminster, studying Information Systems with Business Management. He secured a lower second-class BSc (Hons) on graduation three years later. At age 21, he worked as a salesman at an IT company in Kuwait and was considered by his boss as the best employee the company ever had.”

In 2014 Nicky Morgan said arts subjects ‘hold them [students] back for the rest of their lives’. Would it have helped Jihadi John to have had a character and values class in his Church of England schooling? Would an arts degree encouraged critical thinking more than a narrow vocational qualification?

Perhaps what Jihadi John needed was more wisdom, faith, hope and love? Access to robust mental healthcare. A society that values kindness over academic and work achievement? Courage is great, but it can also be psychopathic. Humility rather than timidity? Contribution, not greatness or success? Self-sacrifice for others, not of others.

‘Try not to become a man of success,’ said Einstein, ‘but rather try to become of man of value.’

Chronicler Pete (and my husband) is unimpressed with Cristina’s solutions. But he adds, “We had lots of birthing classes and baby support, but nothing on how to bring up a child. I think every parent should have parenting classes.”

Cristina Odone appeared at Swindon Arts Centre as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature, 13 May 2016.

Chronicle written by Louisa Davison.

Louisa Davison is the founder of Festival Chronicle and is also known as Agent Louisa of Secret Agent Marketing.

*This might seem ridiculously trivial compared to terrorism, but littering seems to me symbolic of a disconnect with communities and disregard for our environment whether rural or urban, eg ‘someone else will clear it up’ or ‘I don’t care – I don’t live here’ or ‘everyone else does it’ – all excuses I’ve heard.

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