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The Table Video

Gregg Ten Elshof, Robert C. Roberts, Jason Baehr& Janelle Aijian

Are Virtues Caught or Taught? Educating for Intellectual Virtue

CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
Professor of Philosophy, Loyola Marymount University
Assistant Professor, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University
July 3, 2015

Gregg Ten Elshof asks Janelle Aijian, Robert C. Roberts, and Jason Baehr about how to teach and inculcate virtues in students. Can they be taught by simply reading and exploring texts? Or must the virtues be on display, “caught” from an able and inspiring teacher?


The following is attempting, sort of perspective I think you might think, well, content information is taught. But virtues, character traits and the like, those are caught more than they’re taught. And so you might think that education toward intellectual virtue isn’t gonna be so much about the curriculum, as it is about the getting teachers in front of students who exhibit these, traits. Is that the right way to think about it? If you’re trying to educate for virtue, for intellectual virtue, does curriculum stage just as it is, whereas you’re just more careful about the kinds of teachers you put in front of students? How should we think about that?

Can I add a category? I think also the… So not only is the, there’s the factor of the curriculum, what’s being taught and the factor of the teacher, but there’s also the factor of the kind of activities that are assigned. So the kinds of things that the students are asked to habituate themselves into, I actually think, that would be the first category I would press into in terms of what educating for intellectual virtue is gonna look like. So our students in a situation where they’re getting rewarded for one upping each other, or they in a situation where they’re getting rewarded for working together cooperatively to try to come to a solution. That’s the kind of habituation, that seems to me like a good place to start.

Yeah, I think the curriculum is very important, as well as the character of the teacher. And, one of the things about classical schools, for example, is that they, the curriculum is made of great texts and these texts are great, by virtue of the depth of insight and the moral quality and the artistic quality, the artistic excellence of the texts and so, if we’re teaching students, if we’re trying to form students minds in such a way that they become excellent as human minds, we do want to, for them to be feeding on excellent material. So, of course, could be taught by a very, very able and inspiring teacher, and yet if the texts weren’t very good, it would be lacking in something, something important.

And, just to push my point a little bit more obnoxiously. So I teach in that kind of a classical setting and, part of the reason why teaching and great text is so wonderful is because it forms habits of intellectual virtue because the texts are difficult and beautiful. You actually, so just being exposed to those kinds of texts consistently forces a kind of intellectual rigor and also develops a kind of aesthetic appreciation for the greatness of these books.

Yes, I think we definitely want to keep the aesthetic dimension in the picture, and not separate it from the moral and the intellectual, not try to divide things up too much.

I think one point that’s consistent with what both of you have said, is that educating for growth and intellectual virtues, isn’t primarily a matter of teaching or talking about those traits, right. So it’s not a sort of separate curriculum that gets pursued in addition to the academic curriculum. It’s much more a matter of how you approach the academic curriculum, and then yes, what the substance of that curriculum is as well. And that suggests that there are at least, there are multiple, kind of variable that are worth thinking about here, if that’s our goal, one is certainly who the teacher is, and that whether they model the passion for ideas and the love of the subject matter and so forth and that’s often what kind of transmits you know, growth and inspiration in these qualities but, like Janelle was saying, there are values that are implicit in any classroom what gets rewarded and what doesn’t get rewarded. So thinking about setting up kind of the values of a classroom in a way that will lead to students asking questions and focusing on important details, and working together and considering alternative perspectives. Which I think illustrates a broader point about kind of the culture of the classroom. Right? So ideally, what we would have is a teacher that’s knowledgeable and passionate, a curriculum that lends itself to deep thinking and learning about important ideas and then a culture that supports that as well, in terms of what’s the language that’s used, what are the values that are used, or the values that are upheld. And then similarly, of course there are practices, pedagogical practices as well. You might be a very passionate teacher, but if you don’t have certain pedagogical skills, for instance, if you don’t give your students and know how to give them opportunities, as you were suggesting, to think well, to practice these virtues of the mind, right, then if you’re not creating those opportunity, they don’t always happen, right? Just lecturing, that doesn’t always make for opportunities to think in class. So being able to structure activities of building inside the classroom or outside, that gives students opportunities to practice the virtues. It seems important as well. So it seems like a lot of different things, to be pursued.

If I can highlight one thing you said, maybe this is a good distinction. So, intellectual virtues aren’t ideas, their habits of mind, right, so you can’t, I mean, you could teach about intellectual virtues but no amount of teaching content about intellectual virtues, is giving you, that’s not how you’re gonna transmit an intellectual virtue. You have to cultivate a habit within a student.

And then that allows, if you’re thinking about this philosophically, it allows us to draw on a whole rich tradition of asking about how virtuous habits are formed. Role models, exemplars are part of it, but communities and practices are a big part of it as well.