In the 1990s, sociologist Richard Sennett published a work entitled The Corrosion of Character. Based on the notion of “character”, Sennett clarified the following line of thought: while, in the past, we talked about career, nowadays we prefer to talk about our job. Two social indicators, not just semantic. In its original sense, career meant road, route, path and even vocation.
But in the 1990s another notion emerged borrowed from the “archaic meaning of the word ‘job'”, as if to deny this possibility of a path, a road, professional growth, as – writes Sennett – “people do ‘lumps’ of labour or ‘pieces’ of work (or tasks) over the course of a lifetime”. All this would entail an inevitable impact on the character of individuals and, inevitably, on the forms of communal life which derive from it. In fact, there are skills which not only involve the cognitive aspect, such as remembering, speaking, understanding, making connections, deducing and evaluating, but imply transversal qualities, facets of people’s personality called “character skills“, such as open-mindedness, the ability to cooperate and security.
The theme of these non-cognitive skills, in an educational and work context, is the focus of the substantial volume edited by Giorgio Vittadini, Giorgio Chiosso and Anna Maria Poggi, published by Il Mulino: Viaggio nelle character skills [Journey into Character Skills].
We have actually asked Giorgio Vittadini, full professor in the Department of Statistics and Quantitative Methods at the University of Milan-Bicocca and president of the Foundation for Subsidiarity, which he founded in 2002 as a tool for promoting cultural development, to “guide” us through the world of character skills.
Professor Vittadini, perhaps Sennett’s analysis is compromised by some preconceptions, but we could use it as a tool for reflecting on the… return of character, and of the qualitative aspects of personal development, precisely at a time of profound changes.
I think that we need to go back and reflect on the theme of work not only as a necessity for survival, but also as a tool for building personal and social identity. Putting the individual back at the centre of the economy is the great challenge of this era. In this sense, work is a “path”.
The fact that personality traits are fundamental components of the learning process is empirically obvious. For some time, however, it has also been the conclusion reached by scientific studies. This is the case even more so today, in a rapidly changing world where it is crucial to “learn how to learn”.
The volume you have edited with Anna Maria Poggi and Giorgio Chiosso has an important subtitle: people, relations, values. These are the three keystones in terms of understanding the new learning process, not only in an educational context, but also at work, which involves not only cognitive skills. What do you mean by “character skills”?
Character skills are characteristics of a person relating to the emotional and psycho-social sphere. They are traits which influence people’s ability to gravitate towards the chosen objectives, the quality of relationships and the ability to make decisions and cope with reality. They are therefore an integral part of a learning process.
Character skills are characteristics of a person relating to the emotional and psycho-social sphere.
The OECD, the Organization for Co-operation and Development, calls them “socio-emotional skills” in its extensive research project. They are often defined as non-cognitive skills. Nobel laureate James Heckman uses the taxonomy of the “Big Five”: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Emotional Stability. But there are others, and I could almost say that every good teacher has drawn up their own list.
How does this notion relate to that of human capital?
I actually prefer to use the term “person” rather than “human capital”. The dimensions of knowledge cannot be reduced to the cognitive dimension alone. This also applies to “human capital“, i.e. to that set of skills and abilities, innate or acquired, which people use in their work and which provide a skillset for their personal life, as well as for businesses and society as a whole. Education and work should allow us to learn and grow, in other words, to develop our personality, talents and individual qualities.
John Dewey – in simplistic terms – based his pedagogical vision on a Taylorist-Fordist model still prevalent at the time, where students (in the factory: workers) had to “arm” themselves with as much knowledge and as many skills as possible. At present, this model is in crisis, but can we see another one on the horizon? Questions have been raised again for some time about the purpose of education and the methodologies it must adopt. Not only must the right of access to education be guaranteed for all, as enshrined in the Italian Constitution, but also the right to good-quality schooling, tailored to the needs in terms of training and knowledge, capable of involving people and not boring them. The “Taylorist-Fordist” model focused on the accumulation of knowledge divided into disciplines has long shown its limitations. Attempts have been made to modify this model with the introduction of skills, including non-cognitive skills.
But this is still a work in progress. According to observations from international research, the quality of learning depends predominantly on the teachers. Therefore, their training, their continuous professional development, their passion for their subject and for the work they do are key elements. I strongly believe that effective reform can only be achieved by those who know their school, live it and dedicate their skills and energy to improving it, for the benefit of the development and growth of their students.
Can we measure the impact which character skills have on our society as a whole? Aren’t we dealing perhaps with qualitative elements which cannot be quantified?
Character skills are analysed through self-assessment and observational tests normally used in psychology. The goal is to learn to take them into account and certainly not to propose a “character rating” in schools. The assumption underlying these studies is that cognitive and non-cognitive aspects are not disconnected, but jointly provide the inseparable and unique profile of each individual person. I don’t know what sense it would make to measure the impact which character skills have on society as a whole. Personality traits are considered very differently in societies that have different cultures. For example, extroversion is considered a virtue in some societies but as a failing in others.
What are the character skills of the future, both in educational institutions and in the workplace?
This is, once again, subject to personal opinion. In an experiment which we are conducting in schools with 15-year-olds, we have chosen to focus on conscientiousness (task performance) and emotional stability, disastrously affected by the prolonged period of lockdown, and also on self-efficacy/self-esteem. We consider these traits as being useful for schools, but I think this can be extended to the workplace.
Do you think we can go “beyond the CV”? How can we include, enhance, without going as far as “institutionalising”, but at least arrange character skills into a system?
Teachers already take into account the character skills of their students. So, I think that it would be useful to include them explicitly in the schools’ curricula. As to how to do this, I’ll leave that to the teaching experts. I believe that the task of schools is to remove obstacles not only to acquiring knowledge of the content, but also to the development of those transversal skills which so clearly influence the acquisition of knowledge and skills.
Does this mean that traditional “concepts” will lose their value?
No, because knowledge provides the foundation for skills, and it is illogical to think of it as contrary to them. However, I believe that the following “key skills”, which are discipline-based, are and remain an absolute must: reading, writing and arithmetic, plus basic digital skills and, nowadays, a knowledge of English.