Hearts As Well As Minds

Tim Harford comes up with a blogpost about a topic that is very close to my heart:

Writing a few years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Schwartz argued that one of the goals of a university education, especially a liberal arts education, is to teach students how to think. The trouble is, said Schwartz, “nobody really knows what that means”.
Schwartz proposes his own ideas. He is less interested in cognitive skills than in intellectual virtues.
“All the traits I will discuss have a fundamental moral dimension,” he says, before setting out the case for nine virtues: love of truth; honesty about one’s own failings; fair-mindedness; humility and a willingness to seek help; perseverance; courage; good listening; perspective-taking and empathy; and, finally, wisdom — the word Schwartz uses to describe not taking any of these other virtues to excess.


And from the original essay, this excerpt:

Knowing how to think demands a set of cognitive skills — quantitative ability, conceptual flexibility, analytical acumen, expressive clarity. But beyond those skills, learning how to think requires the development of a set of intellectual virtues that make good students, good professionals, and good citizens. I use the word “virtues,” as opposed to “skills,” deliberately. As Aristotle knew, all of the traits I will discuss have a fundamental moral dimension. I won’t provide an exhaustive list of intellectual virtues, but I will provide a list, just to get the conversation started.


There is so much to unpack in both essays that I’m not even going to bother trying to condense this down to one blogpost, and consider yourselves warned, there will be many posts in this series. Because if you are as passionate about teaching as I am (the only thing I may be more passionate about is food), this topic is always front and center in your mind.

I’d distill the implicit topic in both these posts/essays down to this question:

Should education make you a good person, or do you have to be a good person in order to be educated?

It seems like a simple question, but when you begin to think about it, you can end up spending hours on it.

Learning how to think, Barry Schwartz says, “requires the development of a set of intellectual virtues.” Which begs the question: what is virtue?

Here are two of Google’s answers (I’ve selected the two here that I think to be the most appropriate, but you can see all other answers by clicking here):

behaviour showing high moral standards | a good or useful quality of a thing (emphasis added)

Which, if you know your Pirsig, ought to remind you of a passage or two:

The one thing that doesn’t fit what he says and what Plato said about the Sophists is their profession of teaching virtue. All accounts indicate this was absolutely central to their teaching, but how are you going to teach virtue if you teach the relativity of all ethical ideas? Virtue, if it implies anything at all, implies an ethical absolute. A person whose idea of what is proper varies from day to day can be admired for his broadmindedness, but not for his virtue.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 338). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.


Kitto had more to say about this aretê of the ancient Greeks. “When we meet aretê in Plato,” he said, “we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavour of it. ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; aretê, on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.” Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing aretê.
Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency—or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 341). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

Or put another way, if Robert Pirsig were to edit Barry Schwartz’ essay, he would probably have edited his sentence about virtue to “requires the development of excellence”.

That is, education is very much about developing excellence (or virtue, if you insist), and in a sense, that is all it is about. Words matter, so I’d argue that you might want to think about what the word education means to you, and rather than link to Google’s results, allow me to post a screenshot instead:


Note how the first definition comes with synonyms galore: teaching, schooling, tuition, tutoring and so on. But the second definition? Just an example of the usage of the term. When, during random questions, students ask me why I enjoy teaching so much, I say that the highlight of my teaching experience are the “Aha!” moments – when you, as a teacher, can actually see a lightbulb switch on above a students face. Not, I should hasten to add, literally so, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Education is very much, to me, an enlightening experience.

And that, to me, is not the imparting of skillsets. That is a part, without a doubt, of education, but it is only a part. I do not mean to denigrate the imparting of knowledge, or skillsets. This is not about saying that giving systematic instructions about, say, the put-call parity theorem is trivial, unimportant or irrelevant. This is about saying that education is about so much more than that: it is about helping students be good.

So my own answer to my own question would be that education is very much about making a student a good person.

Ah, but then what does being good mean? As it turns out, Robert Pirsig wrote an entire book about this question, called Lila, and ended the book by saying that good is a noun. Which is a whole different story, and will take much more than a blogpost. So what we’ll do instead is focus, in future blogposts, on this topic, on the list of nine virtues that Schwartz speaks about in his essay, and tackle them one at a time.

We’ll begin with a nice easy (sarcasm alert) component of virtue: love of truth.