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Justice Education

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Cultivating Virtue

Higher Education Should Be Education in Intellectual Virtues

Barry Schwartz

Artwork: "The Promised Land" by Mark Bryan © 2003

Until recently, it has been taken as self-evident that higher education is good for the students and for society at large, and that American colleges and universities do an excellent job of providing it. But lately, storm clouds have been gathering over colleges and universities. Commentators are expressing serious doubts, both about whether colleges are teaching what they should be teaching and about whether they are teaching it well. Demands for accountability are everywhere, spurred in part by the absurdly high cost of a college education and the almost two trillion dollars in collective college debt that students have amassed. What are students getting for all that money? And what should they be getting?

Universities that offer specialized training in specific professions have an answer: “We’re training the next generation of nurses, accountants, physical therapists, teachers, software engineers, etc., etc.” Whether they do it well or not may be a legitimate issue, but that they should be doing it is not much in dispute. But, for programs in the liberal arts, the answers are not so straightforward. You often hear defenders of liberal arts education suggest that their goal is less to teach the specifics of any discipline or profession than to teach students how to think. But what does it mean to “know how to think?” Is there one right way to think that applies to all the problems people will face in their professional and personal lives? If so, what is it? And is this sort of training also important for students for whom the liberal arts hold little appeal, but who aspire to professional excellence?

No doubt, knowing how to think demands a set of cognitive skills—quantitative ability, conceptual flexibility, analytical acumen, expressive clarity. And certain professions demand a set of technical skills. Universities have a role to play in developing these kinds of skills, but what makes a university education worthwhile is the marriage of this skill development to a set of intellectual virtues—virtues that will make people good students, good employees and professionals, and good citizens.

Universities are particularly well suited to cultivate intellectual virtues: love of truth, honesty, fair-mindedness, good listening, courage, and most importantly, wisdom. As Aristotle knew, all these traits have a fundamental moral dimension. This makes virtue language the right language for talking about them, even if they are “intellectual.”

Love of truth

Students need to love the truth to be good students. Without this intellectual virtue, they will only get things right because we are punishing them for getting them wrong. As Jonathan Rauch shows in his recent book, The Constitution of Knowledge, the desire to find the truth, rather than “truthiness,” cannot be taken for granted.

It has become intellectually fashionable in recent decades to attack the very notion truth. You have your truth and I have mine. Everything is relative, a matter of perspective. People who claim to know “the truth,” it is argued, are really just using their positions of power and privilege in society to shove their version of things down other people’s throats.

This turn to relativism is in part a reflection of something good and important that has happened to higher education and intellectual inquiry in general. People have caught on to the fact that much of what the intellectual elite thought was the truth was distorted by limitations of perspective. Slowly, the voices of the excluded have been welcomed into the conversation. And their perspectives have enriched our understanding enormously. But the reason they have enriched our understanding is that they have given the rest of us an important piece of the truth that was previously invisible to us. Not their truth, but the truth. It is troubling to see how quickly an appreciation that each of us can only attain a partial grasp of the truth degrades into a view that there really isn’t any truth out there to be grasped.

Finding the truth is hard. There are countless pitfalls along the way. Relativism makes intellectual life easier. When a fellow student says something in class with which you disagree, you needn’t worry about finding a way to challenge that view and make a case for your own. There is no need to struggle through disagreements to get to the bottom of things if there is no bottom of things. Everyone is entitled to an opinion—the great democratization of knowledge.

The love of truth is an intellectual virtue in part because its absence has serious moral consequences. Relativism chips away at our most fundamental respect for one another as human beings. When people have respect for the truth, they seek it and speak it in dialogue with one another. Once truth becomes suspect, relations between people become little more than efforts at manipulation. Instead of trying to enlighten or persuade people by giving them reasons to see things as we do, we can use any form of influence we think will work, the “spin” that pervades our modern political discourse.

Honesty

Students need the intellectual virtue of honesty because honesty enables them to face the limits of what they themselves know; it encourages them to own up to their mistakes. And it enables them to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about the world. Most schools encourage a kind of honesty: don’t plagiarize and don’t cheat. But it is uncommon to see them encourage “face up to your ignorance and error,” or “accept this unpleasant truth and see how you can mitigate its effects instead of denying it.”

Fair-mindedness

Students need to be fair-minded in evaluating the arguments of others. There is a substantial literature in psychology on what is called “motivated reasoning,” our almost uncanny ability to emphasize evidence that is consistent with what we already believe, or want to believe, and ignore evidence that is inconsistent. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, we often use reason more as a lawyer who is making a case than as a judge who is deciding one.

Good listening

Students need to be good listeners because they can’t learn from others, or from us, without it. And it takes courage to be a good listener because good listeners know that their own views of the world, along with their plans for how to live in it, may be at stake whenever they have a serious conversation.

Courage

Students need intellectual courage too. They need it to stand up for what they believe is true, sometimes in the face of mass disagreement from others, including people in authority, like their professors. And they need it to take intellectual risks, to pursue intellectual paths that might not pan out.

Wisdom

Finally, students need the virtue that Aristotle called practical wisdom. Any of the intellectual virtues I’ve mentioned can be carried to an extreme. Wisdom is what enables us to find the balance (Aristotle called it the “mean”) 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 empathetic, fair, and open-minded often rubs up against fidelity to the truth. In a book we wrote on the topic of practical wisdom, Kenneth Sharpe and I called it the “master virtue.”

Virtue Cultivation & the Value of College

In my view, the way to defend the value of a college education is to defend the importance of intellectual virtues like the ones on my list, and then show that the education we provide is successful at cultivating these virtues. Cultivation of intellectual virtues is not meant to be in contrast to training in specific occupations. On the contrary, cultivation of intellectual virtues will contribute to such training, helping to create a workforce that is flexible, willing to take initiatives, and able to admit to and learn from mistakes. People with intellectual virtues will persist when the going gets tough, ask for help when they need it, provide help when others need it, and not settle for expedient but inaccurate solutions to current problems. In Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, The Human Equation, he points to evidence that the right way to hire new people is to focus on the skills you don’t know how to train and trust that you can teach the skills you do know how to train. Intellectual virtues fit this picture perfectly. Workplaces need people who have intellectual virtues, but are not in a good position to train them. Colleges and universities should be doing this training for them.

Are they? I think rather few colleges and universities think systematically about how to encourage the intellectual virtues. Mostly, their cultivation is left to chance, not to institutional design. Aristotle argued (rightly in my view) that virtues are developed through practice, and by watching those who have already mastered the relevant virtues display them.

Most professors do not have the luxury of teaching small classes and seminars, and it is hard to model intellectual virtues when one is lecturing to 300 students. Nor do I envision a time when small classes will be commonplace at large institutions. Most lack the financial resources, and many research universities that may have the financial resources lack the will. But, at the very least, institutions and the people who teach in them should be willing to articulate clearly and publicly that nurturing intellectual virtues is a central part of their mission.

Building a Resume and Building Character

David Brooks, in his book, The Road to Character, distinguishes between what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” The former are not actually virtues in the Aristotelian sense; rather, they are skills that get you good grades, good jobs, nice houses, and hefty bank accounts. “Eulogy virtues” are what turn you into a good person. Though the distinction between skills and virtues is an important one, I think Brooks is wrong to imply that resume virtues are all that we need to produce excellence at work, or that eulogy virtues are for what comes after one’s work has ceased. Eulogy virtues are just as important to becoming good doctors, good lawyers, good teachers, good nurses, good physical therapists, and even good bankers. And they are also important to becoming good children, parents, spouses, friends, and citizens.

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Barry Schwartz is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College and Visiting Professor at Haas School of Business, U.C. Berkeley. Among other books, he is the author of Practical Wisdom (with Kenneth Sharpe) and Why We Work.

Winter 2023

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