Justice Education

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Cultivating Virtue

What Good Is a College Education?

Johann N. Neem

Artwork: "Hot Pink Days" by Donna Walker © 2022

In the fall term, I often teach an introductory, general education course called “Going to College in America.” Although grounded in my discipline—history—the assigned readings draw from economics, philosophy, sociology, and other fields. My goal is to allow students, often in their first term in college, to reflect on why they’re in college and what they want out of their four years on campus. Students have been told again and again—by parents, by teachers and counselors, by political and business leaders—that they must go to college. And my students have followed that advice. They have done what they’ve been asked to do. They are here. But they don’t know why.

I teach at a regional public comprehensive university, the workhorse of public four-year education. My students come from diverse backgrounds. Many are first generation. They’ve been told that a college degree is essential to succeed in today’s workforce. Their goal is to get a degree, often in a major that is directly tied to a job. And yet they find themselves spending the bulk of their first two years taking general education courses in subjects like history, political science, geology, and biology. I hear them complain. I hear them wonder why they need humanities or science if they don’t intend to do anything with them.

My goal in the class is not to brainwash my students into agreeing with me. I teach readings that I disagree with, and I do my best to help students understand authors’ arguments on the authors’ terms. I also make sure to assign readings that contradict each other. But both through the readings and by modeling intellectual curiosity in the classroom, I want my students to see that there are purposes to their education that are not just instrumental. I want them to at least be aware that there are internal goods to a college education if they choose to pursue them. I want to open them up to the idea that a good college education can matter on its own terms, and not just for the piece of paper at the end or the job that you get.

To me, a college education is distinguished from other kinds of education because it embodies ideals distinct from the rest of students’ lives. If we take college education seriously, we want students to emerge from college different than when they went in. The test of a good college education is not graduates’ salaries but whether colleges have cultivated students’ intellectual virtues. The philosopher Jason Baehr, in his recent book Deep in Thought: A Practical Guide to Teaching for Intellectual Virtues, writes that “intellectual character is one dimension of personal character.” In this sense, virtues are not just about a person’s skills or knowledge, but their motives, dispositions, values, and habits. In Baehr’s words, a virtue “reflects who you are as a person.”

Intellectual virtues complement students’ moral and civic virtues. Colleges care that their graduates are ethical and public-minded, but that does not distinguish colleges from other kinds of educational institutions. Unlike other institutions that also care about moral and civic virtue, colleges alone are places devoted to intellectual goods—to learning as an end in itself. That is the public good that colleges offer to society. A good college education must consciously help students understand how intellectual virtues intersect with their moral and civic commitments.

From this perspective, a higher education institution that is dedicated to training people for jobs or to technical training does not offer a college education. This is not because what they do is not important or easier than what colleges do, but because the ends to which they are devoted are distinct from the ends that colleges should prioritize. Both vocational and technical training fail the test of taking students out of their normal lives to dedicate them to the specific task of developing their intellectual virtues and the skills and knowledge required to practice them. Colleges must take seriously the specific goods that they offer.1

This is why the liberal arts and sciences are at the heart of a college education. By studying subjects such as literature and history, political science and economics, biology and physics, mathematics and philosophy, students get to see the world from distinct perspectives. Because these disciplines exist primarily to seek knowledge about the world, engaging with them requires practicing intellectual virtues. The liberal arts and sciences offer three things essential to developing intellectual virtues. First, they provide insight into how the human and natural worlds work. Second, they cultivate in students a habit of asking questions about the world. And third, they provide skills and knowledge to help students develop better answers to questions about the world.

Developing intellectual virtues takes time. Like any form of character education, it cannot be sped up. There is a reason why students need to spend several years on campuses taking classes. Both the campus and the classes are formative. Virtues cannot be learned just once; they must become habits, part of our underlying character. That requires practice and repetition. Online schools, or schools that promise cheap and fast degrees, do not account for the time it takes to foster intellectual virtues. If colleges take character education seriously, they must acknowledge that the formation of intellectual virtues requires students to spend time on campus.

The honest truth is that most of us do not naturally devote our time to thinking about history or politics or cell replication. We have to develop the habit of seeing the world historically or sociologically or economically. We must learn to see what mathematicians or physicists or poets are able to see. And that means we have to study the subjects themselves. But the goal is not passing tests or earning credits. These are external markers, but the aspiration is internal: the goal is to think as historians or sociologists or poets or physicists. And to do that, students must practice, just as a musician must practice, until what they do becomes a kind of second nature. That kind of repetition will make being intellectually virtuous part of who we are, an aspect of ourselves that will be sustained after graduation.

Obviously, spending time on campuses takes money. It’s a lot of money for traditionally-aged students. It’s even more for students who are older and have other obligations: caring for children or aging parents, paying rent or a mortgage. There is no way around it. Yet studies have shown that the biggest driver of student tuition increases is state defunding: states provide less funding per student than they did in the past, and colleges have responded by increasing what they charge students. These are policy questions; college can be affordable for more people. In addition, the student debt crisis is overstated. According to a 2019 Pew study, the median student loan debt was only $17,000, less than many car loans. Average student debt numbers are higher, but much of that debt is held by students with professional graduate degrees, such as MDs and JDs. In other words, it is possible to make college education affordable for more people if we choose to do so.

Cultivating intellectual virtues through the liberal arts and sciences, then, is the distinguishing feature that defines college education from not-college education. Colleges must teach students to think, provide them the knowledge and skills to think with, and enable them to have thoughts worth thinking. But most of all, they must graduate people who are not just morally and civically virtuous but intellectually virtuous. College graduates should leave college wanting to know more about the world, and they should carry that disposition with them into the workforce, their personal lives, and as democratic citizens.

A good education in the liberal arts and sciences should not just be for well-off elites at exclusive institutions. In a democracy, it should be accessible to all capable students. This is not just a belief—it is something that draws on my experience teaching at a public regional university. Students are open to liberal education when they understand what it is for and why it matters. Colleges should focus on their specific purposes, knowing that what they do can change lives. Students deserve it.


  1. An extended version of this argument can be found in my essay “What Is College For?” in Colleges at the Crossroads: Taking Sides on Contested Issues, eds. Joseph L. DeVitis & Pietro A. Sasso (Peter Lang, 2018).
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Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College? and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America. He is Professor of History at Western Washington University.

Winter 2023