The Six-Virtue Definition is Useful

Alfie Kohn made the following comment in an email exchange about what it means to be educated: “Ultimately, of course, this isn’t an empirical question; one definition can’t be more true than another, only more useful.”

His point explains why so many definitions leave me cold — they are useless. It also suggests why we don’t bother to define “educated.” Since “one definition can’t be more true than another,” why debate?

I thank Kohn for his insight. It inspired me to argue that philosophy is more useful than social science in my three-part NurtureSchlock blog series.  This post explains that the six-virtue scheme is eminently useful because:

1.  The six virtues refer to what makes us human — intellect, character, and spirit.

2.  The first of each virtue pair is a capacity and the second is an ability to act.

3.  Therefore, we always know how to improve a situation, once we know what is lacking.  If we lack the intellectual capacity needed to make a situation better, bring understanding.  If we lack the intellectual capability, bring imagination.  If we lack the character capacity, bring strength.  If we lack the character capability, bring courage.  If we lack the spiritual capacity, bring humility.  If we lack the spiritual capability, bring generosity.

These six virtues always make situations better, and their opposite six vices always make them worse. That makes this definition useful.

For example, there could be a variety of reasons why a student scores low on a test. One might be that the teacher used inappropriate materials or methods. In this case the teacher ought to bring more understanding and imagination to the situation. Another might be that the student is surrounded by selfish people, whose demands prevent him/her from studying. More generosity needs to be brought into this student’s life. A third possibility is that the student did not study hard enough. He/She needs to bring stronger character to his/her school work.

When life is seen through a six virtue lens, the improvement path is always clear — bring to bear the virtues that are lacking. That is why this definition is so useful.

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#3 David Ross on 10.31.10 at 9:51 am

“Another might be that the student is surrounded by selfish people, whose demands prevent him/her from studying. More generosity is needed in this student’s life. ”

Here is where it parts ways with simplicity. Teachers are not the sole arbritar of these virtues. Where is this more generosity going to come from? Sure narratives that describe great successes where teachers have made a difference in the life of a kid are aplenty, but what about the other kids? The story about the school in Chicago is a great example of this. Those kids obviously got the six virtues and succeeded, but what about the other kids? There is only so much a teacher or school can do, only so many kids a teacher or school can reach.

“A third possibility is that the student did not study hard enough. He/She needs to bring to bear greater strength of character.”

In the Wonders Years episode and the school in Chicago, one important ingredient was introduced: the student realized that they had to step up. Great teachers and schools make this happen in students, but not all of them. In the Wonder Years, I saw a whole class that needed a teacher, but only one student stayed after for extra help. In the Chicago story, what is going to happen to all those old friends who didn’t buy in? Or the 55 students who did not make it with the rest of the 95?

I absolutely agree with the six virtues and am thrilled that you have basically summed up what I am all about as a teacher. My struggle is that this is a big nasty world where students, teachers, and just people in general do not follow this logic. If they did, this world would be a great place.

If we followed the golden rule, we would have no bullying, crime, cruelty. We would need no prisons, detention, or ISS. But, we do have all those things because people, community and society all contain elements that simply don’t follow the rule or the virtues. This is where I struggle and this is where the oversimplification of the virtues lacks teeth.

Yes, you are absolutely correct…but is it going to work in a real world?

#4 Casey on 10.31.10 at 10:39 am

Good question David. I am currently working on a piece in which I clarify what educators can glean from the six-virtue philosophy. Yes — I believe and say it is simple; but, as you point out, real life and the real world are NOT simple. In the book, I argue that none of the six virtues and six vices are isolatable in human experience. They are always integrally connected to each other, in everything we do. (That is why, in the book, I disagree with Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean.” He believes virtues should be regarded as near the mid-point, between two vices. I say they should be at the far end–away from vice because they are ideals.)

I hope the following helps, as you think about the role of the six virtues in a teacher’s life:

1. Virtues lead to knowledge and skills, but knowledge and skills don’t lead to virtue.
2. If there were a brick wall of virtues, with each brick representing a virtue, the six virtues of the educated person would form the bottom row. In other words, all other virtues are combinations of these six, or rest on these six. I have been testing this in my experience, and I have yet to find a more fundamental virtue, or a virtue that is not a combination of these six. If others know of one, please point it out to me.

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