Intellectuals wrong on intellectual virtues

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Colleges Should Teach Intellectual Virtues two Swarthmore professors say colleges and universities should teach five intellectual virtues: (1) Love of truth, (2) Honesty, (3) Courage, (4) Fairness and (5) Wisdom.

As explained in TSVOTEP, virtue lists are helpful when they are conceptually consistent, comprehensive and concise.  And, as explained elsewhere, the value of every virtue list is in the answer to: “Why these virtues and not others?”  If that isn’t answered we are looking at a random set of virtues, which is not helpful because we already know people should develop virtue.  It’s the meaning of the word.

Conceptually consistent, comprehensive, concise

This list is inconsistent from the beginning.  Having “truth” as the object of “love” does not make the phrase an intellectual virtue.  “Love of truth” is the expression of an emotion, which makes it conceptually different from the other four.

Consistency is also lacking among Numbers 2-4.  “Honesty” is a combination of one intellectual and two character virtues (understanding, strong character, and courage).  “Courage” is a character virtue, not an intellectual one.  And “Fairness” is an ideal that pertains to how we resolve agreements and disagreements.  This list is completely conceptually inconsistent — if there is such a thing.

It isn’t comprehensive or concise, either.  “Wisdom” is the fifth virtue, but wisdom requires the more fundamental virtues of Understanding and Imagination.  The list would be concise and comprehensive, if it simply listed the two intellectual virtues.  Instead, it includes five conceptually inconsistent virtues that form a list that is neither comprehensive nor concise.

Finally, why these virtues and not others?  If this question can’t be answered, we have an arbitrary virtue list, which is exactly the point made by several commenters.

The authors and I agree on one thing:

Some academics may cringe at being charged with the task of developing virtue, believing that it’s a job for others—especially when there is so little agreement about what “virtue” even means in a pluralistic society like ours.

We agree that professors believe their primary purpose is to teach understanding, not virtue.

We disagree, however, on whether Americans agree on the meaning of “virtue.”  They say we don’t agree, but I say we all know that “virtue” means, “desired qualities.”  The authors probably meant that, in our pluralistic society, we can’t agree on which virtues to teach.

We disagree about that, too.  Although we have yet to agree on the virtues of the educated person, the main reason is that nobody has identified them, until now.  Since the publication of my definition, I have learned that everybody wants their children to develop these six virtues, and these are the fundamental ingredients of all virtues.  How are they not the virtues of the educated person?

If we never agree that these are the virtues of the educated person, it will be because our schools teach three virtues and three vices.  Our most-schooled Americans are taught to develop understanding that is unimaginative, strong character that is fearful of truth, and generosity that emerges from pride.  This combination prevents educators, especially higher educators, from developing the imagination, courage and humility needed to agree on, model, or teach a universal, virtue definition of the educated person.

To fully appreciate what happens when intellectuals get involved in philosophical discussions about what it means to be educated, read the Chronicle essay and reader comments.  Several illustrate OAPing (obnoxious academic posturing).


#1 Lee on 02.24.12 at 4:35 pm

To play devil’s advocate – they’re at least talking about it and the topic of teaching “virtue” did make it into the Chronicle.

You pointed out a big disappointment for me, that the question “why these and not others?” went unanswered.

Have you considered submitting a column to the Chronicle on this? Someone there has some interest in it and may consider an expansion on the topic.

#2 casey on 02.24.12 at 7:04 pm

Good idea Lee. Although my experience with weekly journals is that they will consider it “old news,” I might submit something. It can’t hurt. Thanks.

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