“Learning to Think” — A Virtue Approach


“If earnings are not a good measure of educational value, then what is? Colleges can’t get away with smug silence on that question any longer. Society demands an answer.”

So says Barry Schwartz (Swarthmore) in “What ‘Learning How to Think’ Really Means” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. His answer is that colleges teach people how to think, but he recognizes the vagueness of that idea, and attempts to specify it in terms of a set of intellectual virtues.

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. 

These intellectual virtues are:

  • love of truth – “When people have respect for the truth, they seek it out and speak it in dialogue. Once truth becomes suspect, debates become little more than efforts at manipulation.”
  • honesty – “enables students to face the limits of what they themselves know; it encourages them to own up to their mistakes. And it allows them to acknowledge uncongenial truths about the world.”
  • fair-mindedness – to help resist “‘motivated reasoning,’ our almost uncanny ability to emphasize evidence that is consistent with what we already believe, or want to believe, and to ignore evidence that is inconsistent.”
  • humility – “to face up to their own limitations and mistakes and to seek help from others.”
  • perseverance – “we are dumbing down our courses to cater to short attention spans” and not appreciating that perseverance “is more like a muscle that needs to be developed than a natural resource that needs to be excavated.”
  • courage – “to stand up for what they believe is true” and “to pursue intellectual paths that might not pan out.”
  • good listening – “good listeners know that their own views of the world… may be at stake whenever they have a serious conversation.”
  • perspective-taking and empathy – “If they can’t remind themselves of what they were like before they understood something well, they will be at a loss to explain it.”
  • wisdom – “the manager of the other intellectual virtues.”

He offers this list “just to get the conversation started.” He does not take up in this piece the inevitable challenge of how the virtue approach could be operationalized so as to actually provide the “measure of educational value” he started off discussing. Thoughts on how to do that? Or on whether this is a good approach? Has he left off any virtues?

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