Education and Virtue

Socrates famously suggested that virtue is knowledge. This implies that if one knows what is the right thing to do she will do it. It also implies that virtue can be taught. Socrates’ style was ironic and one never knew whether he meant what he said. In addition, he was being quoted by an adoring pupil. But in any event, I think Socrates might have been wrong on both counts, especially since we now know a bit more about human motivation and human frailty than even Socrates knew.

This is all by way of introducing a discussion of the relationship between virtue and education. And while knowledge is not the same thing as education I want to talk a bit about the two and the supposed teachability of virtue. Education certainly involves both teaching and knowledge, even though it is not the same thing as either. But that doesn’t tell us much. To know more about what education is we need to ask what other things it is not.

Education is not schooling. There are many people who spent 20 or more years in school who are not well educated. It all depends on what they did while they were there. Furthermore, there are many well educated people who never spent much time in school — like Abraham Lincoln and Eric Hoffer. And education is certainly not vocational training either, since this focuses attention on the how to? and not they why for? Education involves the conveying of information, which is at least part of what happens in school, and what we can be done online. But it also involves the ability to assimilate that information and bring it to bear on problems and issues that need to be thought through and perhaps solved. This is seldom taught in the schools, and it certainly cannot be taught on the internet. In fact, education is more about process than it is about information. As Robert Hutchins was fond of saying, education is what is left after we have forgotten all we learned in school. An educated person, as I am fond of saying, has taken possession of her own mind: that person is autonomous, able to make her own decisions and not easily led by demagogues and quack salesmen or devious politicians.

Virtue, on the other hand, is about character. It is molded in youth and refined as one grows older. It is largely a matter of imitation: if the parents are honest people, it doesn’t matter what they say, the child will find truth-telling perfectly natural: she will become honest as well.  Strictly speaking, virtue is not taught. And since education is all about teaching and learning, it follows that virtue has nothing to do with education either. They are two separate capacities, if you will. Just because a person is well educated it does not follow that she will be virtuous. A well educated person who can think for herself will know what is the right thing to do in a particular situation, but she may not to it. Doing the right thing is a function of character, it’s about who you are. No matter how bright and well educated a person is, they may still do the wrong thing. There’s no necessary connection between intelligence and virtue whatever.

Torquemada, according to all accounts, was a very intelligent person, perhaps even well educated. But he was a monster because he couldn’t control his fanaticism. And virtue is, above all else, a matter of self-control. History is full of examples of well-intentioned people who nevertheless do the wrong thing. The road to Hell, I have heard it said, is paved with good intentions. And an education can make clear our good intentions, but it can only lead the way. Whether or not we choose to do the right thing depends on character.

As suggested above, virtue cannot be taught, in the sense that arithmetic or grammar can be taught. It is not a function of intelligence or a good education. It is a matter of following the example of good people and having our good inclinations reinforced by parents and grandparents. Teachers can teach arithmetic and correct grammar; they cannot teach virtue. Neither can coaches, as I have mentioned in a previous blog. But these people can certainly reinforce the lessons learned in the home — which is where virtue is learned, where the child becomes the good person — or the bad person. The most we can ask of  well-educated people is that they know what is the right thing to do; whether or not they choose to do it depends on what kind of person they are, whether they are virtuous.

6 thoughts on “Education and Virtue

  1. “education is more about process than it is about information … An educated person, as I am fond of saying, has taken possession of her own mind: that person is autonomous, able to make her own decisions and not easily led by demagogues and quack salesmen or devious politicians.”

    I find what you say here somewhat wide of the desired mark in terms of what education is about. In your book you make the point numerous times in various ways and I found it troubling there too. It seems to me information is every bit as important as process. For 15 years, while I was in Omaha, I had a friend who seemed to be intellectually autonomous in nearly every way. He had a master’s degree in mathematics. He had read more science books than probably most scientists ever get around to reading–in physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc.. He had read at least a couple dozen books on symbolic logic. He followed current events and politics. He watched nature documentaries. And so on. Yet, for all his critical thinking ability, and even though he had read more history than most people, he was profoundly ignorant about things like history! and philosophy and ecology. At about the midway point of my friendship with him, he decided he was going to read some “philosophy.” So, he bought a bunch of Ayn Rand books and became a right-wing economic libertarian. Then he came across some right-wing writings on AIDS and homosexuality, and all of a sudden this formerly fairly liberal 50ish man was a raving homophobe.

    So what was the problem? Was his education lacking in “process” work? I don’t think so. True, when he said, after 9/11, that we ought to drop a nuclear bomb on celebratory Palestinians, that was a character problem (although if he had known the history of the near east in any depth I suspect he would have had a more humane point of view). The problem, the reason he started railing against welfare mothers rather than corporate welfare, the reason he could claim that homosexual activities were socially destructive, the reason he could support the invasion of Iraq, was that he was ignorant of most of the relevant facts about those matters.

    When I teach critical thinking, sometime during the semester I always take a few minutes to make the point that, great and necessary as it is, CT is only as good as the information one brings to it. Then I show my students the old Crying Indian “public service” TV spot. When it’s over, I explain how they were told three major and one minor lie in the span of 60 seconds. All the process training in the world wouldn’t make them capable of knowing about those lies unless they had read a considerable amount of history, a fair amount of ecology, and were especially well informed about public affairs.

    For this and other reasons, I believe educational content should be structured around metadisciplines, those ares of inquiry that are literally more important than all the rest and that should be highly prioritized: history (because it’s our collective memory), ecology (the most important science), and philosophy (where we best learn how to think).

  2. Forgot to mention … my friend was also a computer engineer. And I just remembered … he could take a car engine apart and put it back together.

    • David, you know as well as I do that one example doesn’t make your case. As I said, it might even help me make mine. There may be many reasons having nothing whatever to do with the man’s education that would explain his appaling behavior.


  3. The reply I referred to above was lost in cyber space, apparently. I have argued in a number of blogs and my book as well that information is necessary but not sufficient to make a person “educated.” The man or woman who wins big on the quiz shows is not necessarily a well educated person — any more than your friend, who does seem to be well informed. I would say, from your description, that he is lacking in critical thinking skills. Doesn’t your example make my point?

    • You’re right: of course I know one example doesn’t make my case. But who has time (speaking of curious, serious people like ourselves) to fully engage in every debate we find ourselves in?

      “Doesn’t your example make my point?” I don’t think so. True, my example involves a person who, for all his vast expertise in formal logic, knew little about informal fallacies, but who had, it seems to me, just as large an intellectual deficit in that, where his anti-humane social and political views were concerned, he did not know what he was talking about. My point is simply to say that the possession of information is 9I think) far more important than you want to accept. My former friend was, as you say, well informed. And he was even well informed in a variety of subjects. However, he was profoundly ignorant in others, including the three areas I want organized education to adopt as metadisciplines. Consequently, he had all kinds of wretched ideas about very important matters. If time allowed I could give countless other examples. Here’s one: I have relatives who fervently believe that the the so-called Founding Fathers of the U.S. were highly devout Christians. The fact is most of them were not. Now the relatives I have in mind have poor CT skills to be sure. But is that why they maintain the aforementioned false belief? Yes, to the extent that they draw inferences without justification. But it seems to me it’s just as important here that they’ve never bothered to read any history of the Enlightenment or of the Revolutionary and early national periods. In a case like this you won’t know your inferences are bad unless you know your premises are faulty. I have information. They don’t. It makes a huge difference.

      • I am willing to concede your point about the importance of information. I do tend to downplay it. One cannot be regarded as well educated if he or she knows very little. I think I allowed for that in the blog. But I need to avoid understating its importance. In your friend’s case, as you describe it, I would say his problem is one of inability to process the information he has in is brain. His critical thinking skills seem to me to be weak. But his main problem is one of lack of “virtue,:” which was the point of my blog, as I recall. But, as always, your comments help to clarify things. Thanks!


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