Voices in Education

Democracy, Intellectual Virtues, and Education
For a democracy to function well, its citizens must, at a minimum, have reliable access to credible information and be able to distinguish it from information that is inaccurate or misleading. Alas, in the contemporary information landscape, misinformation is pervasive. And with the advent of user-friendly design programs and “deep fake” technologies, distinguishing political fact from fiction can be exceedingly difficult. As President Obama observed in 2016: 
In an age where there’s so much active misinformation, and it’s packaged very well, and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or turn on your television…If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect. We won’t know what to fight for. And we can lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of the kind of democratic freedoms and market-based economies and prosperity that we’ve come to take for granted. 1
A healthy democracy also requires a healthy public discourse, which in turn demands a willingness to listen to and make a fair assessment of others’ beliefs, even in the face of deep disagreement. As John Stuart Mill observed, it isn’t enough that the democratic citizen “should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations.” Rather:
He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. 2
The contrast between this epistemic ideal and the state of public discourse in the United States—where filter bubbles, echo chambers, tribal epistemologies, and radical polarization are the order of the day—is staggering.

Democracy’s epistemic requirements are salient largely because of how widely they are flouted. What can be done to address this predicament?

Any comprehensive solution must be complex and multifaceted. It must address the problem at systemic, institutional, and policy levels. At the same time, the challenge of navigating the digital landscape is also personal in nature. We must, as individuals, know what questions to ask and be willing to ask them. We must figure out whom and which sources to trust. We must be patient and persevering in our search for the truth. We must be firmly committed to accuracy and resistant to falsehood. We must be capable of thinking for ourselves. And we must be willing to admit our intellectual limitations and listen openly and honestly to people who disagree with us. In short, we must practice a wide range of “intellectual virtues,” which are the personal attributes or character strengths required for good thinking and learning, such as curiosity, intellectual courage, intellectual tenacity, intellectual carefulness, intellectual autonomy, intellectual humility, and open-mindedness. 3

Given that intellectual virtues are in short supply, how might their development be encouraged? By definition, intellectual virtues are central to the pursuit and transmission of knowledge. As such, it’s natural to wonder whether education might have a role to play in fostering these qualities on a wide scale. But how so? That is, what might it look like to try to nurture qualities like curiosity, intellectual courage, intellectual humility, and open-mindedness in an academic setting?

I’ve been thinking and writing about intellectual virtues from a philosophical perspective for over 20 years. But I only began thinking seriously about their educational significance about a decade ago, when a group of like-minded friends and I set out to create a school that would be systematically designed around the goal of helping students cultivate intellectual virtues in the context of academic teaching and learning. Thanks to the hard work of many people, and a grant of over $1 million from the John Templeton Foundation, our initial vision came to fruition in the fall of 2013, with the opening of the Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach (IVA), a charter middle school in Southern California.

Today IVA is flourishing. It serves a diverse student body, is oversubscribed, and is in a sound financial position. Student test scores exceed state and local district averages. The culture of the school is vibrant and steeped in IVA’s unique educational philosophy. Perhaps most importantly, the school is a happy place, with exceptionally high satisfaction rates among teachers, students, and parents. While IVA’s success is due in no small part to its outstanding leadership and teaching staff, it is also a function of what the school as a whole is for—of its telos or fundamental purpose.

The poet David Whyte tells the story of being recruited by a businessman to help bring poetry into corporate America. Having heard Whyte read some of his poetry, the man said: “The language we have in that world is not large enough for the territory that we’ve already entered. And in your work, I’ve just heard the language that’s large enough for it.” In my experience working with primary, secondary, and post-secondary teachers, I’ve experienced something similar with the language of intellectual virtues. Countless teachers have remarked that this language provides them with a rich and attractive way of describing territory they have already entered as educators, including some of their deepest hopes and aspirations for their students.

Intellectual virtues are critical to democracy. Treating them as an important educational aim has the potential to bring deeper meaning and purpose to the educational process. So, again, what might it look like to teach disciplinary content and skills with an eye to helping our students become more curious, intellectually tenacious, open-minded, intellectually humble, and so on? My recent book,  Deep in Thought: A Practical Guide to Teaching for Intellectual Virtues, is an in-depth treatment of this question. Drawing on research in philosophy, education, and psychology, it explores the “principles, postures, and practices” involved with teaching for the virtues of the mind. These include postures like humility, openness, and “presence,” as well as practices such as authentically modeling intellectual virtues, teaching for deep understanding, providing students with frequent opportunities to practice intellectual virtues, and much more. 4

We are at the beginning, not the end, of understanding how intellectual character can be formed in an academic context. While we have much more to learn, there is an undeniable need for educational approaches that address the “whole person”—that target the intersection of head and heart, intellect and will, cognition and character. Teaching for intellectual virtues is one such approach. It holds the dual promise of inviting teachers to reconnect with their calling and helping students cultivate the attributes and skills they need to navigate our precarious epistemic landscape and restore our troubled democracy.


1 https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/nov/17/barack-obama-fake-news-facebook-social-media.
2 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. Elizabeth Rappaport (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978), p. 35.
3 For an excellent introduction to intellectual virtues, see Nathan King’s recent The Excellent Mind: Intellectual Virtues for Everyday Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
4 The book integrates virtue epistemology with a good deal of research from Harvard’s Project Zero on the topic of “thinking routines,” especially work by Ron Ritchhart, including his important book Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).

About the Author: Jason Baehr is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles (LMU). He is the author of Deep in Thought: A Practical Guide to Teaching for Intellectual Virtues (Harvard Education Press, 2021).