Alfie Kohn on “well educated”

In 2004 Beacon Press published a set of Alfie Kohn essays.  The book title is, What Does it Mean to be Well Educated? Naturally I was interested.

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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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