On Higher Education and Intellectual Virtue

In a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct 12, 2012), Dan Berrett argues that many colleges are giving short shrift to the importance of intellectual virtue. In his article, “Habits of the Mind: Lessons for the Long Term,” Berrett encourages professors to go beyond content-driven and skills-driven pedagogy in order to foster underlying intellectual traits such as curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual courage, thoroughness, and humility.  “Shape your students’ underlying attitudes and intellectual characteristics, the theory goes, and a lifetime of deep and lasting learning will follow.”

Berrett’s article reflects a growing interest in intellectual virtue. In the field of primary education, Paul Tough’s recent bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, argues that children who are trained in intellectual virtue will benefit from it over the course of a lifetime. In the field of higher education, a Rutgers University conference will focus on developing a model for applying intellectual virtues to education. In the philosophical discipline of epistemology, the last two decades have seen numerous books and articles published on the subject of intellectual virtue (e.g. W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous).

Berrett provides examples of how certain professors foster such virtues in the classroom setting. Heather Battaly, a philosophy professor at California State University, uses her “Introduction to Logic” course to do so. She requires her students to keep a journal in which they track their intellectual acts outside of the classroom. If they watch a TV show or listen to a song, they record the ways in which they respond intellectually. If they have a dispute with a friend, they record how they resolve the dispute. Jason Baehr, a professor at Loyola Marymount, takes a similar approach and argues that, “One of the really nice things about teaching for intellectual virtue is that, because they aim for deep, explanatory understanding and not just memorization of isolated facts, you’re automatically teaching for rigor.”

We agree with Berrett on this point. The resurgence of interest in “intellectual virtue” is a welcome development which helps to mitigate reductionist models of pedagogy which limit education to something such as content transfer, skill-set development, or quantitative analysis. This development is a recognition, in the secular realm, of what the biblical writers and Christian theologians have argued for thousands of years: every square inch of the fabric of human life is affected by a great antithesis, a massive battle between good and evil, virtue and vice, wisdom and folly. The human mind is not exempt from this battle, but is deeply affected by it, as it is tempted toward intellectual laziness, dishonesty, impatience, close-mindedness, arrogance, boredom, and superficiality. The Christian life demands more than quiet times and church attendance: it demands that we also bring our thought life and intellectual habits under the Lordship of he who gave us those capacities.