Justice Education

Good Thought
September 2023

The Educator as Exemplar

Benjamin J. Elliott LTC, MI

Executive Officer, Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic (SCPME)
United States Military Academy, West Point

In a higher education setting where students arrive with a variety of worldviews and from a society that prizes relativity and individualism, carrying out the role of an educator is bound to be delicate. Is the college experience mostly about the transfer of intellectual and academic knowledge, or is there something more? Should educators be assessed on the basis of their intellectual virtue, “not virtue in general,” as Stanley Fish, former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago suggests? I argue that the position of educator is much more than a deliverer of intellectual virtue and in order to change education for the better, we must understand that a more noble purpose than knowledge transfer exists.

This past June, I participated in the Virtues & Vocations Integrating Virtue Together workshop held on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, where I was reintroduced to the work of Francis Su, author of Mathematics for Human Flourishing. In a speech Su gave in 2013 on “The Lesson of Grace in Teaching,” he asserts that grace is a necessary ingredient for something deeper than mere knowledge transfer, and that “grace amplifies the teacher-student relationship to one of greater trust in which a student can thrive.” This relationship is foundational in a holistic view of education.

The idea of educator as exemplar also became clear to me during a President’s Lecture Series in my master’s program, when one of the lecturers, Dr. Mark Lowenthal, stated the most important thing you can do to become an excellent intelligence officer is to read literature, study the arts, read biographies, and watch movies of cultural significance. Essentially, he was encouraging us to have intellectual humility and intellectual curiosity. I fought to get in his single section where he served as an adjunct. Each day he came toting the daily newspaper in print form. He was modeling to me what he preached; learning is a lifelong process.

Where I serve as an educator, at the United States Military Academy at West Point, character permeates everything we do and say. It is the bedrock of our institution. Our mission is to graduate commissioned leaders of character who will be able to exercise ethical judgement and provide inclusive leadership. We live by the Army Values, aspire to the ideals of our ancients in Duty, Honor, and Country, and are committed to the defense of our Constitution. Our cadets are challenged to live honorably, lead honorably, and demonstrate excellence in all situations.

When I first began my professional teaching journey two years ago, I sat in a crowded auditorium and listened as people began to speak about the utter importance of my role as an educator in our institution. I remember a few of the things that were said to me, but one that I will never forget was the example that we set in the classroom. Someone said very profoundly: “United States Military Academy cadets don’t want to be like you…they want to be you.”

During the first lesson of my course, I ask my senior seminar students to think of the best officer that they have ever encountered and bring to the front of their mind one trait that this person exhibited which made them memorable. I give them time to ponder and then I ask each of them to provide their response out loud while I write the responses on the board. While each section differs, the common trend of responses has centered on care and empathy. After doing this exercise with several classes, I am no longer surprised by the results, and I quote to them Maya Angelou’s famous line: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Educational settings that promote grace and demonstrate care open up the opportunity for students to be coached and mentored. For this coaching to be effective, there must be a mentor worth following. Ideally these educational leaders have traits that they are exhibiting and modeling. In our setting they must be more than skills, or knowledge transfer, that are modeled because “while skills are undoubtedly important for effective leadership, they do not necessarily contribute to ethical leadership” (Lamb, Brant, Brooks, 2022). Our ethical leaders of tomorrow are obligated to direct their attention toward morally good ends. They learn these ideas through their own habit formation and from that of those that care about them and show them grace.

Serving as a moral exemplar and a role model in the classroom bucks the trend that education is merely about intellectual virtues and knowledge transfer. To be transformative educators that students recall as inspiring and provide the motivation to find their own transcendent purpose, we have to be up to the task of providing our students with more than simply ideas and skills. Character is built in individual interactions and specific circumstances. Character is built one action at a time. The summation of our actions becomes our habits and our habits compromise our character. Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy states that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Therefore, one cannot overstate the importance that role models bring to the classroom. Students that observe educators in a variety of settings upholding moral and ethical standards on a daily basis learn to see these actions as important to the institution’s common values. Students gain greater efficacy when they choose to exhibit virtuous actions. Students are given greater opportunities to explore their shortcomings in a way were instructors respond with care and grace, allowing further habituation to occur.  

One of the great practitioner-educators, General John J. Pershing, who both led formations and served as a professor of military science effectively modeled the best of what we aspire. The historian Frank E. Vandiver was asked to deliver the Harmon Memorial Lecture, the oldest and most prestigious lecture series at the United States Air Force Academy, and he said of Pershing: “Understanding people seemed to Pershing the essence of leadership; the essence of understanding, education.” The very education, according to Pershing, was about understanding people where they were at and in turn being able to be present in their education. General John J. Pershing, said it best: “Under training by one who understands him he can be quickly developed into a loyal and efficient fighting man. It would be an excellent thing if every officer in the army could have contact in this way with the youth which forms our citizenship in peace and our armies in war. It would broaden the officer’s outlook and better fit him for his duties….”

While my examples come from a unique setting, I believe that by exhibiting caring in the classroom and role-modeling an effort to habituate ourselves, we can create an environment and a culture where our student populations may learn to believe that their own character growth is a possibility. In turn, we can go well beyond intellectual virtues and knowledge transfer, and deepen the character of the members of our classrooms.