Forming Characters

In my childhood, there were many adults who liked to maintain that draughty rooms were “Character-Forming”. What did they mean by this? If it were true that plenty of early exposure to draughts and cold water toughened up the body, that would clearly be a good thing. We may remember the Spartiates, who as boys had to sleep in the snow. If this sort of thing really works, and for all I know it might, then the people of those distant days were justified in imposing it. Contrariwise, what they would have called ‘coddling’, a word that has almost died out, was not doing kids a real service. I myself need to sleep with an open window, even in winter, and find the comfort of many other people intolerably stuffy – although you will not catch me ice-bathing, as I should surely do if I really had had my Character Formed.

If there is no tangible physical benefit of increased resistance to colds, flu and so on in being brought up in a draughty house, however, what else might be meant by Character-Forming? The elders used also to talk a lot about the virtue of Not Complaining. If draughtiness gave you colds and flu and rheumatism, but taught you not to complain (or rather, the punishments taught you), then are we looking at a good pre-lapsarian culture here? I am not so sure. Endurance is surely a good thing, we all need to learn how to carry on in adversity. But then we have to balance this against the ill-health of the children. Is there truly no way of teaching endurance without doing unnecessary damage, until a free choice can be made to go to boot camp or Outward Bound?

We may ask whether the products of this old-school upbringing turned out as exemplary as intended. Physical resistance is a good thing, stoic endurance is a good thing, but there is a lurking suspicion that the real bottom line was always a deal whereby suffering privations gave you the right to despise others. Certainly many of those who had had their Characters Formed were crashing bores with zero compassion, devoted to making everyone as miserable as they themselves had been. If that be Character, perhaps it is better not to have one.

Posted on August 5, 2011 at 14:17 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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