21st Century Virtues in the Classroom

My last post was a re-post.  I hope it’s ok if I re-comment.  I keep coming back to this comment left by Brad Ovenell-Carter on a post a couple weeks ago and I think it is worth standing alone as a post.

Thank you for bringing us to what I think is the fundamental purpose of an education: the teaching of morality, which as you point out is necessary to citizenship. My friend, Ian Benson, writes in the UBC Law Review:

A deeper ground for moral education is both necessary to citizenship and largely missing from contemporary education of all sorts […Unfortunately,] what now stands for moral education is a series of disconnected concepts (e.g. “tolerance,” “equality,” “self-esteem” and “rights”) that are themselves obscured by a loss of historic understanding of such concepts as “virtue” and the rise of a superficial language of “values.”…If citizens (religious and non) continue to attempt to speak to surrounding cultures in confused language (such as…by using the pseudo-moral language of “values” when they mean an objective category of truth and meaning), they will never succeed in communicating those matters that are deepest and most essential to citizenship and culture.

I think he’s right. And he helps me illustrate a problem you will run into if you try to teach the values of tolerance, curiosity and so forth.

The problem is that tolerance and curiosity and the other qualities you mention are not values. They are virtues. Values, by definition, are elective. In fact, they are not really things at all. If I say I value this blog of yours, what I am really saying is that it is important to me, that it has some worth–as far as I am concerned. Likewise, if I say I value hard work, I mean the same thing. True, most healthy-minded people will agree on valuing the latter. But they have no more reason to take it as a thing of value than your blog. In other words, we can’t say hard work is valuable simply because most people say they value it. The laws of supply and demand don’t apply to ideas or concepts because they are always in infinite supply.

We need to teach virtues, not values. We can think of virtues as distinctive or essential, positive qualities of things: human beings are by nature tolerant, curious, loyal and so on. Now, if that’s the case, then it follows that we all ought to–I mean that in a moral sense–cultivate those qualities. Of course, we may choose not to cultivate them, but that is not the same thing as saying they are elective, like values.

Now we will soon run into another problem, namely that we derive virtues from our beliefs about the fundamental nature of things–our metaphysical claims. That is another, long discussion, and I’d be flattered if you’d have a look at a paper I presented on that subject at conference on the humanities at Columbia University to years ago. Send me an email and I’ll pass the paper on to you.

Cheers & thanks for resurrecting a topic that is near and dear.

Brad O-C

This comment has sent me on another wave of deep reflection.  And by the way Brad, my email is PBogush@wallingford.k12.ct.us  I would love to read that paper.

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