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Teaching the Learning Virtues

Maybe it’s the fact that I have two elementary school-aged boys that this article on virtues captured my attention. Ironically, it addresses teaching virtues in college. However, I believe facilitators and teachers should always model these five virtues, whether we’re teaching young students, young adults, or grown-ups.  They include:

  1. The love of truth
  2. Honest
  3. Courage
  4. Fairness
  5. Wisdom

Admittedly, I’m also a graduate of Yale University, where the motto is “Lux et Veritas,” that is Light and Truth. The article, “Colleges Should Teach Intellectual Virtues” by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, was synthesized in this week’s Marshall Memo.

Five Virtues That Schools Should Model and Teach

In this Chronicle of Higher Education article, Swarthmore College professors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe say colleges and K-12 schools need to go beyond teaching knowledge, academic skills, and critical and analytical thinking and instill certain intellectual virtues. Here is their list, which they say is exemplified in KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools and Harvard Medical School’s third-year program in a Cambridge, Massachusetts hospital:

The love of truth – “When a significant minority of Americans reject evolution and global warming out of hand, the desire to find the truth rather than ‘truthiness’ cannot be taken for granted,” say Schwartz and Sharpe.

Honesty – “Students need to be honest because it enables them to face the limits of what they themselves know, encourages them to confront their mistakes, and helps them acknowledge uncongenial truths about the world,” say the authors. This goes beyond refraining from plagiarism and cheating; it means facing up to ignorance and error and accepting reality.

Courage – This is standing up for what one believes is true even when other people disagree – including those in authority.

Fairness – Students need to evaluate the arguments of others fair-mindedly. “They need humility to face up to their own limitations and mistakes,” say Schwartz and Sharpe. “They need perseverance, since little that is worth knowing comes easily. They need to be good listeners because students can’t learn from others, or from us, without it.”

Wisdom – This, say Schwartz and Sharpe, “is what enables us to find the balance between timidity and recklessness, between carelessness and obsessiveness, between flightiness and stubbornness, between speaking up and listening up, between trust and skepticism, between empathy and detachment. And wisdom is also what enables us to make difficult decisions among intellectual virtues that may conflict. Being fair and open-minded often rubs up against fidelity to the truth.”

How do we teach these virtues? Primarily by example, say Schwartz and Sharpe – in how teachers ask questions, how we pursue a dialogue, when and how we interrupt, how carefully we listen, and how often we admit that we don’t know something. “We are always modeling,” say the authors, “and the students are always watching.”


“Colleges Should Teach Intellectual Virtues” by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 24, 2012 (Vol. LVIII #25, p. A72),

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