The best teachers and students don’t wake up in the morning excited about the prospect of high standardized test scores or improving their school’s academic achievement rating. These are not very energizing or inspiring educational goals. Consider, by contrast, the goal of becoming—or helping another become—a certain type of person: one who loves learning, asks thoughtful questions, thinks interesting thoughts, notices important details, considers opposing points of view, probes for deep understanding, and persists in the face of intellectual struggle and challenge. This goal—which is a matter of virtues like curiosity, attentiveness, open-mindedness, intellectual thoroughness, and intellectual tenacity—is much more attractive and compelling. It makes education a more meaningful and life-giving enterprise for teachers and students alike.
A compelling and concrete way of “fleshing out” certain familiar but nebulous educational aims
One often hears that education should equip students to become “lifelong learners” or “critical thinkers.” While these are attractive ideals, they are also pretty vague. The language and concepts of intellectual virtue provide a way of “thickening” these other concepts, making them more concrete, personal, and attractive. Intellectual virtues are the character traits of a “lifelong learner” or “critical thinker.” As such, they capture the personal side or dimension of these other important goals. Further, even young children can grasp and appreciate the value of qualities like curiosity, open-mindedness, and intellectual courage. Thus intellectual virtue concepts and language can help us better understand and increase our motivation to pursue certain familiar but elusive educational goals (Baehr 2013).
Preparing students for successful careers
It is well known that employers today place tremendous value on so-called “soft skills” or “non cognitive skills” (Heckman and Kautz 2012). These skills include several intellectual virtues, for example, curiosity, open-mindedness, and intellectual humility. Employers are also looking for people who “know how to think” and are competent, self-motivated learners (see this recent column in the New York Times about “How to Get a Job at Google” or this one on the “mental virtues” needed if you are “an information age office jockey, alone with a memo or your computer”). Intellectual virtues just are the “habits of mind” a person needs in order to think and learn well. Therefore, educating for intellectual virtues is an excellent way of preparing students for successful careers.
Helping students become good citizens and good people
In order for a democracy to flourish, its citizens must inform themselves and draw conclusions about complex political issues. Doing so requires identifying reliable sources of information, sifting through arguments and evidence, listening openly to alternative points of view, not leaping to conclusions, and much more. In other words, it requires virtues like intellectual carefulness, intellectual thoroughness, open-mindedness, and intellectual honesty (Hazlett 2016). Similarly, a person’s ability to make wise and morally responsible decisions in all areas of life depends in part on the quality of the beliefs that guide these decisions. Intellectual virtues have a significant impact on the quality of our beliefs and in doing so make an important contribution to the moral status of our actions. For example, if a person forms beliefs in ways that are careless, dishonest, or narrow-minded, this is likely to have a negative impact on the moral quality of her actions. Alternatively, if she forms beliefs honestly, openly, carefully, and thoroughly, she will be in a better position to act well. In short, to live well, we need to believe well, and intellectual virtues put us in a position to do just that (Montmarquet 1993).
Baehr, Jason. 2013. “Educating for Intellectual Virtues: From Theory to Practice,” Journal of the Philosophy of Education 47: pp. 248-262.
Hazlett, Allan. 2016. “The Civic Virtues of Skepticism, Intellectual Humility, and Intellectual Criticism,” in Intellectual Virtues and Education: Essays in Applied Virtue Epistemology, ed. Jason Baehr (New York: Routledge).
Heckman, James and Tim Kautz. 2012. “Hard Evidence on Softs Skills,” Labour Economics, 19/4: pp. 451–464.