Virtue and the Good Life

The only way to proceed through a complex situation is to start with the first right principle.” — GK Chesterton

Every education system begins to fail its students the moment it forgets that its students are human. But it fails those students all the more when it remembers that they are human but neglects their humanity.

The universal habit of humanity with regard to the education of children has been to educate them primarily, especially in the primary years, by forming their character, and for a teacher to be the teacher of only her own children. That is to say: most of the time for most of human history, education occurred within the humanest of settings: the home, as one aspect of domestic life that demanded the domestication of its dwellers.

At some later historical point and for a variety of historical reasons, education took on the form of the mostly cooperative endeavor among members of a local community who — having been sent down the road to the one-room schoolhouse as children — sent their own little ones down the road to the same one-room schoolhouse. Sometimes the children were friends, sometimes foes, but they were unmistakably familiar, all having walked together uphill to get to school, and all resolved to having to walk uphill going home, too –– and almost certainly in a snowstorm. 

None of the children were much wealthier than any of the others, though it’s true that those who were wealthier usually had the leisure to spend more time at school and less time helping on the farm or in the shop. But in neither of these historical examples, whatever their historical shortcomings, did the teachers and students and parents and administrators (such as they were) find themselves caught up in the particular traps of our time, which has turned a mostly cooperative endeavor into a mostly coercive one.

In contrast to the very modern notion that the aim of education is to produce college-ready teenagers prepared to meet the 21st century challenges of a global economy, most people for most of history understood that the purpose of educating a child was to produce a wise and virtuous adult. And just as an acorn is made to become an oak tree, so a child is made to become an adult, designed for family and friendship and community and hard work and, ultimately, heaven. 

Now this is where the oak tree analogy would normally limp (as all analogies do). But just here, it begins to sprint, though in the wrong direction. For we accept as a natural consequence of modern life that, while the oak tree may spend its days providing shelter for birds and shade for boys, it might also be cut down and used for framing or furniture or firewood. The modern trap of modern education is that it has come to view the student in much the same way as it views the oak: as a source (albeit a very complex and curious and not altogether compliant one) of raw material from which to harvest leverageable skills for the sake of economic, social, or political gain.

But you can’t have your oak tree and chop it down, too.

Whatever the child may potentially become, we must not forget what he will certainly become: an adult. And whether a man chooses to spend his adulthood as a carpenter or a civil engineer or a career politician, what matters far more than if he chooses to manage lumber or land or laws is whether the carpenter offers the oak at a fair price, or the politician can manage a career in politics without politicking corruptly. And though the modern mind might perceive it tragic, or at least inconvenient, were a man to fail at making a fortune, it would be far worse were he to squander the fortune he already possessed in the forms of his family and his friendships because he found himself incapable of acting so as to preserve what is of greatest value.

It occurs to me that much of my reflection on and critique of education always meanders its way back this very paradox: that it’s possible, and even increasingly predictable, that a young man or a young woman will pass out of school with flying colors only to discover a few years later that life is miserably passing them by. Or, as Walker Percy put it: “You can get all A’s and flunk life.” 

In other words, being human requires training in humanity.

In our modern discourse, student behavior is often seen as one of many aspects of the educational process that — when managed properly — leads to a scenario in which students can achieve certain measures of academic success. Misbehavior is seen as prohibitive to that success, not only for the misbehaving student but also insofar as misbehavior threatens the safety, well-being, and healthy atmosphere of that student’s classmates and the community at large. 

All sorts of programs and initiatives have been implemented to function as counter-measures to undesirable student behavior: in a targeted way with something like Restorative Justice; and more broadly, with the introduction of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and, most recently, the pseudo-psychological practice of “Community Circles”. But to whatever degree these measures are successful, they will ultimately fail because they fail to account for and respond to the fundamental structure of human action, often by viewing the person as a complicated machine and misbehavior as a glitch that requires a patch or modification. 

Getting education right means getting the human person right, first. And for that, I shall propose a reconsideration of human virtue. “Virtue” isn’t a term educators use much anymore. And when it is used, it’s often used mistakenly or polemically. Mistakenly, in that it’s reduced to its lowest common denominator of meaning: something like “good behavior”. Polemically, in that the term is dismissed as antiquated and linked to religious practice.

So perhaps it would be worth spending a bit of time reintroducing the idea of virtue to the commonwealth and its common discourse, especially as that discourse applies to the ends of education and the means by which those ends might be achieved. For, though it would be false to claim that educational institutions have failed to account for the vital importance of what is ultimately virtuous behavior, far too many — having both misunderstood its meaning and mistaken its purpose — have misapplied its merits.

Virtue is a framework that considers human actions in light of human nature. Human beings possess a nature which consists of the various elements that constitute what it means to be human. Traditionally, human nature is said to be comprised of four elements. The first, and most obvious, is the human body. It’s the element of human nature which ties us most directly to our mammalian cousins, and the aspect of our humanity that drives us to pursue the fundamental necessities of existence: food, water, shelter, sex, and community.

A second element, one which separates us distinctly from those same cousins, are our various “appetites”, also referred to as “passions” or “emotions”. The easiest way to think about the appetites is by seeing them as manifestations in the form of feelings that arise as a result of the operation of our natural instincts to survive and propagate, which humans have always and only managed to do within the context of communities, both small (family, clan, tribe) and large (nation). Think: love, hatred, hope, despair, joy, grief, courage, cowardice, and anger.

The remaining two elements, which philosophers most frequently refer to as “capacities” or “powers”, are the will (the capacity to choose) and the intellect (the capacity to think).

In brief: we are thinking, choosing, feeling creatures.

It’s important to recognize that, while we are easily able to consider these aspect of the human person distinctly in the abstract, when we turn our attention to the student sitting right in front of us, we immediately see that all four elements that constitute a human person are always operating simultaneously, each influencing and being influenced by the others. And yet, a hierarchy exists among them, one which also informs the philosophy behind the idea of virtue education. And that hierarchy is precisely the reverse order of the elements as described above: at the lowest level is the body; next, the passions/emotions; then, the will; and finally, the intellect.

To explain how the hierarchy works in practice, I hope you’ll permit the following analogy.

Briefly, the properly informed intellect acts as the ideal navigator of a road trip. It has the map (hopefully the right one); it knows the destination (hopefully a good one); and is committed to arriving safely and expeditiously. The “will” is the driver, directed by the navigator. At best, the driver freely and promptly obeys the prudent directions of the navigator, which — having done so — will make for a smooth and pleasant ride. But, the driver is constantly and unduly influenced by the passions: the whining, screaming, singing, sleeping, fighting kids in the back seat, made to whine and scream and fight because they have to go potty and they are hungry and tired and bored and grossed out because their brother keeps picking his bogies and wiping them on the window.

The aim of the drive is the destination. But, that does not mean that the navigator is free to ponder only the lake-house or the lagoon; the navigator must give clear directions, anticipate the obstacles, and attend to the very legitimate needs of the children in the backseat. To the extent that the navigator does this, and does so successfully, so much more pleasant the drive.

In brief: the intellect informs the will, which chooses well when it chooses according to the dictates of reason and not according to the dictates of the passions, though the passions themselves, guided by the wisdom of reason and directed toward what is good by the will, can elevate the experience of life’s joys.

So much for Virtue 101.

When it comes to considering student behavior using the framework of virtue as a pedagogical model, it would be a mistake to believe that virtue education should be excluded from public institutions on the grounds that it is overtly, or even subtly, religious in nature. Certainly it’s the case that religious schools who use virtue education believe that the goal of a virtuous life is sanctification, eternal friendship with God. But the concept of virtue is a wholly pagan — mostly Greek — one, adopted and adapted by religious institutions throughout history not primarily because it somehow explains the hidden mysteries of God, but because it very clearly explains the manifest mysteries of man.

It’s also important to understand that the adoption of a virtue education pedagogy does not have as its aim a kind of secular puritanism or neo-Stoicism. Far from it. Unlike modern discipline/behavioral programs that seek to mitigate negative behaviors, virtue education aims to habituate the human soul in the direction of a universally desirable good

What is that universally desirable good? Happiness, of course: but of a kind that not even a perfect combination of emojis can represent. The result of living a virtuous life is “eudaimonia”, a Greek term which is often translated as “happiness” but would be better translated: “the lived experience of total human fulfillment” or, more simply: “human flourishing”.

To quote Aristotle, one among the chief pagan architects of virtue: “Happiness (eudaimonia) turns out to be the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” In the primary grades, training in virtue works as a response to misbehavior. But formation in virtue reframes the question of behavior in light of the attainment of desirable good rather than the reduction of an undesirable evil. What’s more, the goal of training in virtue is not the elimination of whatever emotions might cause a student to act out, but rather the right ordering and harnessing of the emotions in service of the good. 

For all their merits, concepts like Restorative Justice and SEL will inevitably be replaced by the next new thing (which will also find little success) at least in part because most modern secular discipline programs are designed to operate within systems rather than respond to humans. Instead of couching student behavior within the larger framework of human nature that aims at true freedom and flourishing, schools have increasingly relied on bureaucratic structure, protocols, and procedures. But systems, by their very nature, aim at efficiency; and efficiency requires predictability. Humans, by contrast, are unique and unpredictable — all of us glorious and goofy one-offs. Which should remind us that every system designed for humans requires a piece of our humanity in exchange for efficiency.

And this is precisely the reason for so much confusion, frustration, and failure in modern educational discourse around questions of student behavior. Turns out, there are no systematic solutions to the challenges of educating 50 million young people by 3 million teachers in 130,000 schools. But then again, systems are seductive precisely because of their supposed efficiency. What teacher wouldn’t welcome an “If this, then that,” way of handling the most mysterious creatures on the planet: your average middle schooler?

Every attempt to outsource virtue by replacing it with a system fails to account for the nature and end of the human person, who is a thinking, choosing, feeling creature. It falsely imagines that the solution to Sam’s bad behavior will be found in the sufficiency of the system, rather than the sagacity of Sam’s soul. It focuses on the choices rather than the chooser, and provides Gabby with a set of desirable outcomes rather than ordering Gabby’s intellect, will, and passions toward what is good. In short: when it looks at the acorn, it willingly however unwittingly sacrifices the oak tree for the firewood.

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