Teaching Virtue

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Most colleges and universities spend considerable time delineating their learning outcomes for their students. These are typically skills, abilities and values that define the ultimate competencies of the institution’s graduates.  At Anna Maria College, for example, we are in the midst of a review and refinement of our Institutional Learning Outcomes. Almost every college or university includes outcomes like critical thinking and quantitative reasoning and effective communications. As a Catholic college, we also value ethics, faith, service and respect for all people.

I often speak about Catholic higher education as being distinct from other institutions because of its “values centered” approach to education. As Catholic educators, we value the life of the mind and strive to prepare our graduates to be successful in whatever field they choose. But we believe it also important to develop and nurture the heart and the soul and prepare our graduates for a life of service to the Common Good. I often say that our ultimate goal is to move our students from knowledge to wisdom.

Months ago, knowing my interest and passion for values-based education, a colleague of mine recommended that I read a book by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe entitled, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. My understanding is that this book centers on the Aristotelian ideal of wisdom. Schwartz and Sharpe are professors at Swarthmore College. This book has been on my long list for future reading.

Last week, I saw a short essay by Schwartz and Sharpe entitled, “Colleges Should Teach Intellectual Virtues.” This essay contends that colleges have the responsibility to do more than teach outcomes related to knowledge and skills. They argue that we should also be “developing” virtue, especially “intellectual virtues.” They describe the following as the “critical intellectual virtues:”

1)    “The Love of Truth” --- They contend that the love of truth correlates with student achievement and learning. If students only get things right because they fear the punishment for getting things wrong, they will not be committed to the search for truth.

2)    “Honesty” --- Schwartz and Sharpe are particularly eloquent in describing this virtue. “Students need to be honest because it enables them to face the limits of what they themselves know, encourages them to confront their mistakes, and helps them acknowledge uncongenial truths about the world.” This understanding of honesty moves us far beyond the issues of cheating and plagiarism to accountability for mistakes and a lack of knowledge.

3)    “Courage” --- They contend that students must be willing to stand up and speak out for what they believe is true. Courage is manifested when this action is taken even if it’s a minority position and/or in disagreement with professors and leaders of the institution.

4)    “Fairness” --- This virtue has multiple dimensions according to Schwartz and Sharpe. It encompasses open-mindedness, especially towards people and views different than the ones we hold; humility to take responsibility for limitations and failures; perseverance to pursue knowledge even if learning has challenges; and listening to others. It empathizes understanding that collaboration is a profound modality for learning.

5)    “Wisdom” --- Finally, Schwartz and Sharpe advocate for the teaching of “practical wisdom” as described by Aristotle. They write, “Wisdom is what enables us to find the balance between timidity and recklessness, between carelessness and obsessiveness, between flightiness and stubbornness, between speaking up and listening up, between trust and skepticism, between empathy and detachment. And wisdom is also what enables us to make difficult decisions among intellectual virtues that may conflict. Being fair and open-minded often rubs up against fidelity to the truth.”

If you agree that these intellectual virtues are as important as traditional learning outcomes, how do you teach them? I will share Schwartz and Sharpe's views next week. But I wonder if you agree with them … is teaching virtue the responsibility of colleges and universities? Are these the intellectual virtues? Do you agree with their definitions and descriptions?

While you consider this, I plan to start reading their book!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Tuesday, 22 July 2014