Voices in Education

Educating for Intellectual Character
In his recent book Character Compass, Boston University professor Scott Seider tells the story of three successful Boston-area charter schools each with a strong but relatively unique commitment to character education. To capture some of the differences between these character education programs, Seider employs a distinction between moral character, civic character, and “performance character.” Moral character can be thought of as the character of a good neighbor. It includes qualities like trustworthiness, kindness, and compassion. Civic character is the character of a good citizen, including traits like tolerance, respect, and community-mindedness. Performance character refers to “the qualities necessary to achieve one’s potential in endeavors ranging from art to athletics,” for example, perseverance, ingenuity, and grit (Seider 2012, p. 3).

Seider’s tripartite distinction is helpful and illuminating. Too often the literature in character education equivocates between different concepts of character or between actual character strengths and related but distinct moral or intellectual skills and aptitudes. Being clear about the different dimensions of personal character is an important first step in dispelling some of this conceptual confusion, which in turn is important to the actual practice of character education in schools.

However, as Seider himself acknowledges in the closing pages of his book (pp. 231-32), his taxonomy neglects a dimension of personal character which some have argued is at least as relevant to education as moral, civic, or performance character. This is the dimension of intellectual character. A person’s intellectual character is a function of what she believes, how she feels, and how she is disposed to act in connection with “epistemic” goods like knowledge, truth, and understanding. Good intellectual character is comprised of “intellectual virtues,” which are the character traits of a good thinker or learner. They include traits like curiosity, wonder, intellectual carefulness, intellectual thoroughness, open-mindedness, intellectual courage, intellectual rigor, and intellectual humility.

An approach to character education that gives primacy to intellectual virtues has numerous advantages.

First, it provides a way of fleshing out certain familiar educational aims that are important but nebulous. This includes the aim of “lifelong learning.” Everyone agrees that education should fostering lifelong learning. But what exactly does this mean? What are the qualities or dispositions of a lifelong learner? Intellectual virtues provide an answer to these questions, for they just are the personal qualities of a lifelong learner. Thus educating for intellectual virtues provides a concrete and strategic way of pursuing the worthy but elusive goal of lifelong learning.

Second, “intellectual character education,” as we might call it, sidesteps one of the main objections raised against more traditional approaches to character education. Some object to these approaches on the grounds that they rely on controversial notions of morality that are out of place in public education. This objection has little force against the attempt to educate for intellectual virtues. Again, intellectual virtues are the character traits required for good thinking and learning. They presuppose no controversial moral commitments.

Third, educating for intellectual virtues also sidesteps the familiar objection that in an age of academic standards and high-stakes standardized testing, a systematic focus on character development is unrealistic from a practical standpoint. Intellectual virtues aim at knowledge and understanding. And they express themselves in intellectual actions like listening, interpreting, analyzing, reflecting, judging, and evaluating. Therefore, educating for intellectual virtues naturally lends itself to an active and critical engagement with academic content and skills. One needn’t choose between educating for academic standards and educating for intellectual virtues. The two go hand in hand.

While the language and concepts of intellectual character and intellectual virtue do not yet figure prominently in the discourse on character education, this is beginning to change. One illustration is a three-year grant project I am directing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles that is sponsored by a major grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The Intellectual Virtues and Education Project is bringing together leading scholars in education, philosophy, and psychology to discuss and conduct new research on intellectual virtues and their importance to educational theory and practice. This includes, among several other events, a major conference this summer on educating for intellectual virtues. The project also involves the implementation of an intellectual virtues educational model in the Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach, a new grades 6-8 charter school in Long Beach, CA.

I am not suggesting that a focus on intellectual character education should supplant all other approaches to character education. Nor is that this approach is the solution to the myriad problems facing public education today. It is rather that the idea of educating for intellectual virtues deserves a place at the table within character education and offers a promising way of making education more personal, humanizing, and life-giving.

About the Author: Jason Baehr is an associate professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and director of the Intellectual Virtues and Education Project. He is also the author of The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2011).