Between 1928 and 1930, Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May published a series of famous studies about character that would set back the study of virtue for over a half-century. Based on their studies Hartshorne and May concluded there was no such thing as stable character traits in people.1 The major reason for this conclusion pertained to one thing they discovered in their studies of honesty, self-control, and the organization of character in general. They found no correlation between when students would or would not demonstrate a virtue. For example, a particular student might cheat in one experimental exercise but not another. Thus, Hartshorne and May could not predict whether a particular student would or would not cheat in a variety of activities.
They also found “the mere urging of honest behavior by teachers or the discussion of standards and ideals of honesty, no matter how much such general ideas may be ‘emotionalized’ has no necessary relation to the control of conduct.”2 Taken together, they concluded that there is no such thing as the consistent character quality of honesty. Furthermore, it is not something that can be taught by simple admonitions.
Various problems have been pointed out with Hartshorne and May’s approach, but I want to focus on one in particular that is also associated with a vast amount of virtue education in higher education and especially certain Christian approaches to virtue development that emphasize habituation or practice. Hartshorne and May did not realize that one does not simply learn virtue in one identity context (e.g., being a patient parent) and then simply transfer that virtue to the rest of one’s identities (e.g., being a patient co-worker, spouse, citizen on the road, neighbor, etc). Although some things learned in one context can transfer, the reality is that virtues usually must be learned in particular identity contexts (I will defend this point in greater detail in a second post).
When understood in this way, one realizes that liberal arts classes are not a very good place to learn moral virtues beyond one’s academic identity (e.g., what it takes to be a good historian or biologist). The liberal arts, such as religion, philosophy, psychology classes, etc. are an excellent place to think about the ends of the good life, to think about virtue, and to think about the strengths and weaknesses with various conceptions of the virtuous life. They are also excellent for discovering and evaluating the different means to reach an agreed upon end or virtue (e.g., say understanding and evaluating the different theories about how one develops self-control or love).
Yet, what the liberal arts do not do, outside of intellectual virtues or subject-major virtues, is help you actually acquire the virtues necessary in other identity contexts (e.g., acquiring the particular virtues related to being an excellent friend, spouse, parent, citizen, neighbor, caretaker of the earth, steward of your body, steward of culture, etc.). To understand how to do that, we must turn to fields such as athletics, music, art, and the professions.
The reason why these disciplines are important for both understanding and actually achieving virtue development is how virtue is usually defined. A recent definition proposed by some of my colleagues is a helpful start:
a virtue is (a) a habit (and so (b) dispositional and (c) deep-seated), (d) aimed at activity in accord with right motivation and reason, (e) by which people act well, and (f) by which one is less likely to act poorly. 3
Developing these second nature types of habits associated with a,b, c, e, and f are what these disciplines do (the liberal arts are helpful with motivation-d). For example, there are certain common elements involved with learning the habit of hitting a ball well. However, hitting a ball well in golf, baseball, tennis, ping pong, cricket, etc. are all very different types of skills.
Granted, the hand-eye coordination I learned in hitting a baseball helped later when learning to hit a racquetball and tennis ball, but they are three very different types of swings with different thought and habituation processes. We must realize the same proves true for virtues in different identity contexts (e.g. love for children, spouse, learning, nation, neighbor, enemy, etc.)—one finds some similar basic types of distinction upon some earlier virtue theorists (see for example Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica, I.II.26.4).
Once we commit to learning particular virtues in particular contexts in particular ways, we must engage in particular practices in these contexts. In Anders Ericsson’s research on experts in the areas of sports, music, art, etc. he noted that there are three different types of practice. First, there is what Ericsson calls “naive practice” in which a person does something over and over again in the hopes that they will get better. He gives a sample conversation between a music teacher and a student:
Teacher: Your practice sheet says that you practice an hour a day, but your playing test was only a C. Can you explain why?
Student: I don’t know what happened! I could play the test last night!
Teacher: How many times did you play it?
Student: Ten or twenty.
Teacher: How many times did you play it correctly?
Student: Umm, I dunno…Once or twice….
Teacher: Hmm…. How did you practice it?
Student: I dunno. I just played it.4
As we all know, students often study this way.
The second type of practice Ericsson calls purposeful practice. This kind of practice has four key elements: 1) well defined, specific goals; 2) it is focused; 3) it involves feedback; 4) it requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. An example of the first element with the student above would be “Play the piece all the way through at the proper speed without a mistake three times in a row.”5 For our basketball player, it might be “make 300 three-point shots a day from every part of the three point arc while receiving passes from different angles (and not just the key).” In marriage, one could imagine the benefit of a similar type of focus for a spouse who seeks to be a better encourager: write five pieces of encouragement to your spouse once a week (something my wife actually does).
To fulfill the second element of purposeful practice, you would not seek to fulfill these goals casually. You would need to play or shoot as if in the game. My father, a former coach, always told me that casual lay-up drills in basketball are generally worthless, because that’s not how you try to make layups in a game. You’re going full speed (often with defenders nearby) and the angle you take to the basket is not necessarily one you take in usual casual lay-up drills. Therefore, you should practice them with focus at full speed at different angles. Similarly, spouses must learn certain conflict-resolution virtues and practices and be able to practice them in the heat of an emotionally charged conflict.
Third, virtue acquisition requires something one rarely receives in many church liturgical practices except perhaps confession—it involves specific feedback. One needs an expert coach, mentor, or as Christians say, a discipler/spiritual guide to give one expert feedback to correct problematic practice. Even the greatest athletes all have coaches. For example, my best friend’s niece who was in the Olympic decathlete trials this past year had different coaches for different events. We often need the same with virtue in different identity contexts.
Fourth, it requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. When I used to play basketball, I would always get compliments for my ability to shoot with both hands. I attribute this skill to my older brother who continually forced me get out of my comfort zone and dribble left when playing one-on-one, so that I developed the ability to dribble and shoot left handed. I hated it when he did it. Later, I became grateful. Similarly, we are not developing virtue in specific identity contexts (e.g., courage at work), if we are not getting outside our comfort zone.
When understanding virtue in this way, we avoid the trap of believing that Christian liberal arts classes are some magical place where broad virtue development occurs as long as we continually talk about virtue. Instead, we recognize that particular types of intellectual and performance virtue development can happen in classes, but that students will need other mentors to help them in moral, civic and performance virtue development in other identity areas of life.
In fact, in our study of character development among Baylor students, we find that the major sources of impetus for the students self-identified development of virtues rarely comes from professors (except when it comes to learning what it means to be excellent in one’s scholarly discipline). Instead, most of this stimulus comes from caring friends, Bible study leaders, residence directors, residential chaplains, and college pastors. They speak into students’ lives regarding the practice of virtue in particular ways and contexts.
To summarize, although talking about “humility,” “justice,” “faithfulness,” or “love” without giving specifics is sometimes necessary, the reality is that learning these virtues must occur in a specific identity context in which deliberate practice, mentors and wisdom are employed. In Part 2, I will expound upon why deliberate practice for virtue must take place in various types of identity contexts.
- Hugh Hartshorne, Mark May, and Julius B. Maller, Studies in the Nature of Character, vol. 1: Studies in Deceit, vol. 2: Studies in Self-Control, vol. 3: Studies in the Organization of Character, vol. 4 (New York: Macmillan, 1928-1930).
- Hartshorne and May, Studies in the Nature of Character, vol. 1: Studies in Deceit (New York: Macmillan, 1928), 413.
- Ratchford, J.L., Pawl, T. & Schnitker, S.A. (2021). What is virtue? Using philosophy to improve psychological definition and operationalization. Manuscript currently under review.
- K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2016), 14.
- Ericsson and Pool, Peak, 15.