character building

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The process whereby a particular activity develops desirable values in an individual. Sport has frequently been claimed to be a way of character building. Through learning to play in teams, cooperate with others, and the like, it is seen as not just a reflection of wider social values, but as generative of such values. Although there is scepticism about the role of sport in character building, historical analyses have shown the place that sport played in this sphere. In Britain in 1864 the Clarendon Commission stated that ‘cricket and football pitches…are not merely places of amusement; they help to form some of the most valuable social qualities and manly virtues, and they hold, like the classroom and the boarding house, a distinct and important place in public school education’. Loretto School's headmaster H. H. Almond wrote in 1893, in Nineteenth Century, that football could educate its players in a ‘spirit of chivalry, fairness and good temper’. Modris Eksteins sees in this British model of sportsmanship a dual moral and physical purpose, captured in Sir Henry Newbolt's 1898 poem Vitai Lampada, which ‘transported the sporting mentality’ into the imperial context: ‘“Play the game!” That's what life is about. Decency, fortitude, grit, civilization, Christianity, commerce, all blend into one—the game!’ (Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, 1989). It was the sporting spirit that marked the British approach in the early years of the war, and that was condemned by one French observer as ‘too calm and inclined to a who-gives-a-damn attitude’, seen as an expression of l'égoïsme anglais.

Not all educational idealists and sport reformers would succeed in their character-building missions: team games could breed selfishness and brutishness; rational recreation providers could see their initiatives appropriated by social groups who wanted to play in different ways. But despite the scepticism of some psychologists and empirical social scientists, testimony—such as the biographies of boxers from deprived social circumstances, or the reciprocal respect of international contestants in the Olympic arena—confirms that there is more to the character-building capacity of sport than mere rhetoric or wishful thinking. See also amateurism; athleticism.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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