The term character has two main senses, denoting either a distinctive mark or sign (usually impressed on a surface), or a distinctive quality or feature of someone or something. When used of an individual, in its most historically typical meaning it designates a distinctive moral quality, or qualities. Whilst nowadays we might speak less often of someone being of good character, it is still usual to be asked by an employer to provide a character reference, which would provide testimony of our good qualities or virtues. We are as likely to speak now of someone as being ‘a bit of a character’, by which we mean they are unconventional or quirky in behaviour, disposition or even dress.
In the moral sense, character was significant for the first co-operators, who saw co-operation not only as a specific type of commercial relationship between worker, capitalist and consumer, but also as a distinctively moral practice, aiming at the improvement of character and the promotion of the virtues of self-help and self-reliance.
Robert Owen’s A New View of Society (1816), his first published statement of his vision for a reformation of society, was subtitled Essays on the Formation of the Human Character Preparatory to the Development of a Plan for gradually ameliorating the Condition of Mankind. A New View was not simply a statement of utopian principles; it was also a reflective account of Owen’s experiment at New Lanark, and thus empirical proof of the principles he was advocating.
At the heart of Owen’s reforms at New Lanark was his creation of an Institution for the Formation of Character – in effect an educational institution or school, provided to educate the children of the workers at his New Lanark mills. Influenced by the views of William Godwin (1756–1836) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) on character, Owen supposed that character is not innately fixed. However, whilst he famously declared of children that they ‘may be formed […] to have any character’ (1816, 80), he nevertheless ruled out the possibility that the individual is the cause of his or her own character. Responsibility for character is principally social: it is impressed on children by those who have the first and most sustained involvement with them in their early years – their parents and instructors – and by their social circumstances. What is required, then, and what, based on his experience at New Lanark, Owen calls for in his New View in order to improve the character of the immiserated working classes is a social remedy – the provision of a national system of education and moral instruction, established and run on rational principles.
A good deal of Owen’s observations about character centre on the vices that have been instilled in the poor and working classes by their miserable circumstances and want of education, and thereby on undoing what society, out of ignorance, has permitted to be done. What Owen does say about virtue underlines that at bottom he thinks of character in terms of its social significance; good character is a social virtue for Owen.
According to Owen, people are born with a desire for happiness, which is the primary cause of all their actions. Happiness is truly secured only to those of good character; the good person is a happy one. However, the individual alone cannot attain happiness. Rather, it is a social acquisition. Consequently, the key precept to be inculcated in children is a concern for the happiness of others. It is, according to Owen, a principle of human nature as incontrovertible as the principles of Euclidean geometry that there is ‘a clear and inseparable connection […] between the interest and happiness of the individual, and the interest and happiness of every other individual’ (1816, 111). It follows, then, that the virtues Owen identifies – being ‘just, open, sincere and benevolent’ – are those that go to make individuals ‘valuable members of the community’ (1816, 101).
For various reasons, the concern with moral character diminished in the twentieth century. Certainly, under the pressures of neo-liberalism and the relentless monetisation of education, the focus of pedagogic theory and practice, shifted emphasis away from the improvement of character and towards the provision of skills. Within the co-operative movement itself, the teaching of skills has long been important – individual co-operatives have always sought to provide education and training for their members in order that they are able to make an effective contribution to the development of their co-operative. However, if an interest in the inculcation of good moral character diminished – perhaps because it was redolent of benign patronage – it is nevertheless difficult to conceive how the co-operative movement could ever divorces itself completely from a concern with character. As the 1995 Statement of Co-operative Identity affirms, the movement is based on ‘the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality and solidarity’, and the personal virtues of ‘honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others’. How best to cultivate those virtues is an open question, but it is one that the writings of Robert Owen, and those of other earlier co-operators such as George Jacob Holyoake, can help answer. For those seeking to develop co-operative education now, they are a valuable record of the experiences of the early co-operators in developing those virtues that are essential to the formation of the co-operative character.