“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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Alan White
7 years ago

One virtue that I try to emphasize in my courses–particularly my 101, which is a “single-topic” approach based on the free will problem–is cultivating an attitude of “critical patience”, which involves both patience with one’s self in taking the time necessary to try to understand complicated issues, and patience with the subject matter itself as involving lots of related stuff that must be sorted through patiently. Insight might suddenly occur anytime, but usually it only does so with lots of preparation and study as a foundation.Report

7 years ago

The list of virtues seems excellent, especially the point about perseverance. The idea may be vague but maybe it’s like jazz. If you have to have it explained …Report

7 years ago

I think an important intellectual virtue is something like responsibility (perhaps there is a more appropriate term). This is the awareness to reject beliefs which (if held consistently) would force you to deny things we know to be true. I have a particular set of beliefs in mind, but to avoid a tangent, I will leave it at that.Report

7 years ago

Rebeka, while I certainly think responsibility has an important place in the intellectual virtues, I think it can come into conflict with others, so we need some way of clarifying and negotiating such conflicts.

For example, “the awareness to reject beliefs which (if held consistently) would force you to deny things we know to be true” potentially conflicts with “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.”

Now, in practice, I think philosophers hold a more limited version of fair-mindedness. At my most cynical, I’d interpret it: “to resist motivated reasoning when it’s about beliefs I’m not motivated by.”

But at my most charitable, I’d say it’s something like: “to reduce motivated reasoning while accepting that we have to tentatively hold certain baseline positions that can’t all be questioned at the same time and that we need to choose some core positions to use as at least tentative comparative controls while critiquing others.”

But since which positions should be treated as intuitively baseline or as controls is itself a matter of serious philosophical dispute, how do we keep the charitable version from in practice serving as a cloak for the cynical version?Report

7 years ago

I especially like the inclusion of humility and Alan White’s emphasis on “critical patience”. In particular, I’ve noticed that politicians who haven’t graduated from a university program tend to be the sort who glorify common sense and want to ‘cut through all the bs’. In my neck of the woods (Ontario), we even had a premier (=governor) who was elected based on his “Common Sense Revolution”. He didn’t have a degree, and neither did the former mayor of Toronto (Rob Ford), who was impatient with any discussion or critique and thought the solutions to most problems were just obvious. By contrast, a politician who has graduated from a university is more likely to have had that vital experience of ‘knowing’ that something was just obvious (e.g., that Euclidean geometry is the only viable geometry, that no infinity can be greater than another, that we all straightforwardly have free will) and then seeing this ‘obviously true’ doctrine demolished. Having that experience instills an awareness that even the most solid intuitions are subject to critique and may have to be given up. It leaves one more open to discussion and critique from a variety of perspectives. Of course, a lot of people get through university without learning this lesson, so there’s a need for required (or at least popular) courses that focus on it. (I use the example of politicians because it offers some widely known cases.)Report

John Turri
7 years ago

Without necessarily denying that any of the traits listed are in some sense intellectually good or that universities are/should be in a good position to help cultivate them, what’s the evidence for the central claim that “learning how to think requires the development of” them?Report

BLS Nelson
7 years ago

I arrived at the same list, more or less (starting polemically here, refined here). My initial list described the virtues in terms of candor, humility, integrity, and fidelity, upheld by a superordinate virtue of dignity. Much of the list in the OP collapses into those four clusters, with perseverence and courage rolled into what I called integrity; honesty rolled into candor; humility and fair-mindedness clustered together; and good listening, love of truth, and empathy with fidelity. My conception of dignity might or might not be one kind of wisdom, depending on what the author had in mind, though I have a fairly idiosyncratic idea of what dignity amounts to.

Anyway I presented this list as an armchair musing with zero evidential pretentions, and in comments elsewhere I expressed skepticism about the treatment of virtue as being the subject of a science, owing to the fact that they have zero construct validity (since they’re not, in practical contexts, going to be very easy to distinguish from one another, being largely subject to interpretation). And they must lack any such validity if we are to believe in the unity of virtues thesis. I could be wrong, though.Report

7 years ago

Anon, I think you’re expecting necessary and sufficient conditions where you aren’t likely to find them. Consider how even the moral virtues can come into conflict, like between prudence and courage when faced with children in a burning house. There isn’t an algorithm for resolving those situations; the point of having wisdom is, in part, to manage those conflicts well.

I think virtues are an excellent way to regulate one’s behavior, but that their imprecision and radical context-sensitivity make the project of operationalizing and testing people for their virtues (moral or intellectual) unlikely to succeed.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
7 years ago

Seriousness: This is difficult to clarify, but certainly involves seeing intellectual endeavour as other than a game or a passtime – rather seeing oneself as engaged in the most important issues. Though it is not incompatible with humour and having fun.

Hope and optimism: Hope and optimism that there are things to be learnt, and that one has a decent chance of learning them, is essential. Without this, perseverence is tough and likely to be undermined by temptations, weakness of will, doubt, laziness, self pity….Report

7 years ago

List of virtues exist in the abstract as noted.

Making our lives..our inclinations, our choices, our actions subject to these virtues including developing will to pro-act is ‘operationalizing’ (as mentioned). It seems somewhere along the way volition would need to be conditioned by force of habit. So that virtuous-volition (if there is such a thing) brings about actions in tenacious pursuit of truth and results follow as expected. Habit forming through rigorous training and right reward mechanisms in the right curriculum seems one way.Report