The Problem with Talking About Intellectual Virtues

Thinker at Columbia University

By: Brooke Allen

This piece is a response to Colleges Should Teach Intellectual Virtues by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe.

The problem with talking about Intellectual Virtues is that it can give intellectuals the feeling they are virtuous when they are just talking.

Colleges might not think of themselves as being in the business of teaching virtues (like honesty, integrity, courage, fairness, wisdom, and love of the truth) but the fact is they can reinforce or squash good instincts. For example, a student I know wrote a college admissions essay that began with a graphic description of the earth under attack by aliens when he, as super-hero, arrived to save the day. His essay concluded by saying he wanted to go to college to save the world.

Three years into college I introduced the student to the Heroic Imagination Project (www.HeroicImagination.org). Its founder, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, wrote to the student asking how they might work together to change the world. The student wrote to me, “I’d rather not change the course of history than risk changing it for the worse.” I cannot tell you how imagined courage become timidity but I can tell you when and where it happened.

Question: How can the people at colleges do a better job teaching courage?

Answer: Colleges can ease students’ fears by saying to them even before they apply: “What we think about our students is not as important as what they think about us.”  At freshman orientation, students can be tasked with: 1) demanding the teachers and administration say who they are and what they stand for, and 2) ferreting out liars and hypocrites.

Question: What role is left for a college in an age when you can learn everything everyone has said about anything without a library, a professor, or paying tuition?

Answer: If you want to be virtuous nothing beats time spent with people of character in a place where sensibility, wisdom, honesty, hard work, and courage are common. It matters little if the people there are discussing Aristotle or laying bricks. That is why I bet the greatest college of this century does not yet exist and it will be built by its denizens. Because most people want to be virtuous, but don’t know how, there will always be a market for such places. Besides, where else would anyone want to be? And why call such places “colleges” but rather aspire to call them “everywhere?” (Homework assignment: Reflect on Wikipedia.)

Call to Action: If you are a person who students want to find at college when they arrive then do not wait for marching orders from administration but instead take matters into your own hands. Write an essay of the sort colleges ask applicants; say who you are, what you (not others) should do, and what your institution (not all institutions) should ask itself. Then hire a random 9th grader with high skills and low regard for authority to hack into your college’s home page and display your essay there.

I once saw a tee-shirt that said, “I aspire to be the person my dog thinks I am.” If you have children or students you can do better. Train them not for obedience but courage and critical thinking and then aspire to be the person you tell them you are.

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Author: Brooke Allen

A retired Wall Street executive with a whimsical side.

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