No sacred cows

It’s as I suspected – my defects can’t be cured

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

I’ve just finished making a one-hour documentary about character for Radio 4 that’s due to be broadcast on Saturday at 8 p.m. It starts with the premise that there’s been a decline in what we think of as British values — honesty, fortitude, duty, modesty, charity, hard work, good manners, a sense of fair play, etc. — and asks whether anything can be done to restore them. Should they be taught in schools? Do parenting classes help? Or is the younger generation doomed to sink into a morass of indolence and vice?

I was originally commissioned to present it because I’ve written about character before, as well as helped set up some schools. But that was before my spot of bother at the beginning of the year when the Prime Minister appointed me to the board of the Office for Students, a new public regulator. My detractors started to trawl through everything I’d ever written dating back 30 years to prove I wasn’t a fit and proper person to serve on this board. I went from being a participant in the debate about whether the British character has declined to Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution.

Luckily, that didn’t mean Radio 4 ditched me in favour of someone more anodyne. All I had to do, explained the excellent producer Pauline Moore, was address the issue at the top of the programme — acknowledge that I have some character defects and give the impression that it was this disability that gave me a vested interest in the subject. Almost as if it was a programme about the search for a hair loss remedy that I was well-qualified to present because I’m bald.

As Pauline and I delved into the subject, I was worried that we might encounter a psychologist who claims to be able to help with the sort of problems that got me into trouble, such as an irresistible urge to provoke and enrage. (Handy if have a career as a columnist; less so if you want to enter public life.) If that happened, I knew what would come next. I’d have to undergo ‘therapy’ at the hands of this quack — ‘Tell me, Toby, were you starved of attention as a child?’ — and then reflect afterwards on whether I’d been ‘cured’. In the documentary world, this is what’s known as an ‘immersive’ approach and it’s all the rage.

But that didn’t happen, thank God. The more deeply we got into it, the clearer it became that virtues like honesty, kindness and resilience cannot easily be taught — which, to be honest, I kind of knew already. The programme is for a slot called Archive on 4, which meant Pauline was able to trawl through hour upon hour of experts ruminating on the subject and pick out some of the best bits. One such was an interview with the psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris talking about her book The Nurture Assumption, in which she draws on a mass of evidence to show that most parents have no impact on how their children turn out. Pauline also found a wonderfully scathing dismissal by the sociologist Dr Tracey Jensen of David Cameron’s short-lived proposal for parenting classes.

We also interviewed the behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin, who’s just written a book called Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. As you can guess from the title, he doesn’t set much store by nurture when it comes to explaining why people turn out the way they do. Character, he explained, is a subset of personality, which is about 40 per cent heritable. Aha, you think. That means 60 per cent of individual differences are due to differences in the environment. But not so fast, says Professor Plomin. The ‘salient’ environment is not what we think of as ‘nurture’ – how people are parented, the schools they go to — but non-systematic, random stuff. It’s the micro-climates individuals create for themselves via the choices they make, heavily influenced by their genes, that are the relevant environmental inputs. Trying to design this process so children turn out one way and not another — more hard-working, etc. — is beyond our capabilities.

As a school founder, that was disappointing, but as a parent it was a huge relief. It also means paying for an expensive course of therapy to ‘cure’ me of my character defects is a waste of money. I’m afraid I will continue to provoke and enrage and this Radio 4 programme is probably a case in point.

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