The Excellent Mind: Intellectual Virtues for Everyday Life
Deep in Thought: A Practical Guide to Teaching for Intellectual Virtues
Servant Teaching: Practices for Renewing Christian Higher Education
Each of the three authors of the books reviewed in this essay seems to have had a moment when he realized that imparting knowledge and skills, however important, is an insufficient goal of education. For Quentin Schultze, it was when one student dumped his notes and textbook (written by Schultze himself!) into a trash can as he was leaving the classroom after handing in his final exam. For Nathan King, it was a much less dramatic, albeit no less important, occasion of preparing a teaching statement as he was looking for a job with his newly minted PhD. Jason Baehr does not reveal a particular instance of epiphany, but shares in different places in his book how he often felt unfulfilled by and disconnected from his profession of teaching and how the ideal of intellectual virtues has helped him recover his passion and hope for education as a “profound human good” (2).
I also had an unforgettable experience several years ago which led me to seriously question my purpose as a teacher. A former student of mine left this note at the end of what I thought a “perfect” short essay about the United Nations: “You know, Dr. Shin. I don’t actually believe in any of the things I wrote above. I just thought that you would like that answer.” I still cannot fully describe the flood of emotions that overwhelmed me at the time, but I knew then that something was amiss about my teaching and that I needed to change course. Soon, I started to pay more serious attention to character as an important educational aim, and quickly found a rich and growing literature on intellectual virtues, to which Baehr and King have made substantial contributions. I have since made it a rule to begin all my classes with a brief discussion of intellectual virtues and reiterate their importance throughout the semester. I have also restructured the way I evaluate student participation around the nine intellectual virtues adopted by Intellectual Virtues Academy, the California-based middle school Baehr helped establish in 2013. Even after making all those changes to incorporate intellectual character into my teaching, I must confess that I still feel unsure about whether I am doing it correctly, whether it is working, or whether it is even worth doing.
In his foreword to Philip E. Dow’s 2013 book, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development, Baehr suggested that “[w]hat is needed, then, is an informed, accessible and engaging account of the intellectual virtues that will help the average reader to understand just what the intellectual virtues are and how we might go about acquiring them—and, ideally, an account that approaches these issues from a richly and distinctly Christian standpoint.”1 Baehr’s own Deep in Thought and King’s The Excellent Mind indeed provide such accounts, except that they are not written specifically from a Christian perspective. Schultze’s little book, Servant Teaching, is not about intellectual virtues per se, but it addresses virtue as one of the three essential elements of servant teaching, which he believes is key to renewing Christian higher education. Written by master teachers with fellow educators in mind, all three books are eminently practical, urging readers to not just think and talk about virtues, but practice and teach them. Together, they provide compelling answers to what intellectual virtues are, why they are important, how to teach them, and what Christian faith has to do with them.
What Are Intellectual Virtues
Both King and Baehr emphasize the personal nature of intellectual virtues. They make up our intellectual character, which is in turn part of our personal character—who we are as persons. According to King, intellectual virtues are “the character traits of excellent thinkers, where such thinking extends not just to our getting truth, knowledge, and understanding, but also to our keeping and sharing them” (4). Similarly, Baehr states that “[y]our intellectual character—which again is one dimension of personal character—consists of your dispositions to act, think, and feel in the context of epistemic activities and pursuits, such as learning, thinking, inquiring, observing, reasoning, wondering, and analyzing. It reflects who you are as a thinker and learner” (30). This definition of intellectual virtues initially sounds circular and vague, reminiscent of the famous declaration of U. S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart regarding obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” But both authors, especially King, do a good job of specifying and substantiating the concept with logic and illustrations. The Excellent Mind is filled with stories of people—famous and unknown, real and fictitious—who exemplified different intellectual virtues in their pursuit of knowledge and truth.
Intellectual virtues are also multidimensional. Baehr and King present their own tripartite models of intellectual virtues. The former argues that all intellectual virtues have three dimensions in common: skill, motivation, and judgment. For instance, an open-minded person must be skilled at considering and switching different perspectives. She also needs to be motivated to use that skill. Finally, she will know when, why, and how to deploy her perspective-switching skill, which requires good judgement. King’s understanding of intellectual virtue is slightly different. According to him, every intellectual virtue has thinking, motivational, and action (behavioral) components. Virtuous thinkers believe that knowledge, truth, and understanding are valuable. They desire and care about knowledge, truth, and understanding for their own sakes. And they consistently act upon their beliefs about and desires for knowledge, truth, and understanding. So, going back to the example of open-mindedness, King would expect an open-minded person to be willing and able to transcend her own perspective and actually to practice it to gain a valuable intellectual goal, such as truth, knowledge, or understanding.
Not surprisingly, Baehr and King draw heavily on Aristotle as they try to show how to identify intellectual virtues at work. Both introduce Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean as a useful way to tell intellectual virtues from intellectual vices. Aristotle famously said that a virtue can be understood as a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency. King presents nine of the twelve virtues he examines in his book this way: 1) curiosity between indifference (deficiency) and gluttony (excess), 2) carefulness between carelessness (deficiency) and scrupulousness (excess), 3) autonomy between servility (deficiency) and isolation (excess), 4) humility between arrogance (deficiency) and self-deprecation (excess), 5) self-confidence between self-deprecation (deficiency) and arrogance (excess), 6) perseverance between irresolution (deficiency) and intransigence (excess), 7) courage between cowardice (deficiency) and rashness (excess), 8) open-mindedness between closed-mindedness (deficiency) and indiscriminateness (excess), and 9) firmness between spinelessness (deficiency) and rigidity (excess). King acknowledges that his three other virtues of honesty, fair-mindedness, and charity do not necessarily fit into this framework. This could be why he presents another analogy of Aristotle’s—virtue as hitting a target with an arrow—as a better illustration of what Aristotle truly meant by his doctrine of the mean, according to which virtuous people do the right things (object), at the right times (occasion), for the right reasons (motive), and in the right ways (means). As applied to the intellectual virtue of perseverance, this view calls someone as virtuous when he continues his intellectual pursuits despite obstacles and challenges, but only when his projects are worthy, his occasions are right, he uses proper methods, and he does it because he treasures knowledge for its own sake.
As to specific intellectual virtues, Baehr focuses on the same nine virtues promoted by Intellectual Virtues Academy mentioned above: curiosity, autonomy, humility, attentiveness, carefulness, thoroughness, open-mindedness, courage, and tenacity. The first three virtues are critical to “initiating the process of learning and getting this process moving in the right direction” (34). The next three virtues “keep the learning process on the right track” (39). The last three are important for “overcoming familiar obstacles that arise during the learning process” (45). As already mentioned, King’s list of intellectual virtues is slightly different from Baehr’s, and he categorizes them differently as well. King labels curiosity, autonomy, and carefulness (not humility) as the three virtues for beginning intellectual inquiry. Humility, self-confidence, honesty, perseverance, and courage are what he calls the “virtues of self-regulation” (29), that help us overcome various challenges. Lastly, we need open-mindedness, firmness, fair-mindedness, and charity to “function well in communities” (29). Thus, Baehr and King share the seven virtues of curiosity, autonomy, humility, carefulness, open-mindedness, courage, and tenacity (or perseverance) in their lists, while the former adds attentiveness and thoroughness and the latter includes self-confidence, honesty, firmness, fair-mindedness, and charity.
Our discussion of the two books so far raises several, potentially important questions. First, what is the relationship between the intellectual virtues propounded by King and Baehr and Aristotle’s “original” intellectual virtues? In Nicomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher talks about the five intellectual virtues of sophia, episteme, nous, phronesis, and techne, commonly translated as philosophic wisdom, scientific knowledge, intuitive reason, practical wisdom, and art.2 Considering that both Baehr and King rely almost exclusively on Aristotle’s view of virtues in general as they define and describe intellectual virtues, it is rather puzzling that they are largely silent on what he specifically calls intellectual virtues. Does this mean that the two authors find Aristotle’s scheme irrelevant or unhelpful? If so, why? I think this point is worth exploring because, at least in social sciences, there have been significant debates over whether practical wisdom, rather than theoretical knowledge, should be the central aim of research and teaching.3 It would be useful to know whether and how the intellectual virtues championed by Baehr and King relate to the variety of intellectual virtues Aristotle expounds.
Second, how many intellectual virtues are there? How many of them should we be concerned with? How do we decide which virtues are more important than others? As we saw, Baehr highlights nine virtues while King details twelve. Philip Dow’s 2013 work mentioned above, which both Baehr and King cite frequently, examines seven.4 King and Baehr claim that there is no single authoritative, exhaustive list of intellectual virtues and offer readers freedom to choose and organize the virtues to meet their own needs. But to do so might be daunting to those who are first introduced to the idea of intellectual virtues. It would probably be better for them to start and stick with either Baehr’s or Kings (or Dow’s) list until they gain more knowledge and experience.
Lastly, what about emotions? What do they have to do with intellectual virtues? King and Baehr alike hint that there is an emotional dimension to in- tellectual character, but they never fully address it. King briefly mentions the role of emotions when he discusses intellectual perseverance. While recognizing that negative emotions like anger and frustration are appropriate responses to obstacles sometimes, he seemingly sees emotion as the antithesis of rationality and something to be controlled and overcome. In one of his footnotes, Baehr reveals that elsewhere he defends a four-dimensional model of intellectual vir- tues, which includes an affective dimension, but decided not to address it in the current book because “it is less important from an educational standpoint (albeit not completely so)” (208). However, this claim is contradicted by the abundance of research on learning and emotion. Also, Baehr does in fact briefly comment on how emotions can play a positive role in modeling virtues. By manifesting her passion and wonder, for example, a teacher can better instill curiosity among her students. Drawing on Parker Palmer and the Jesuit tradition, Baehr also makes a broader point that education is a holistic enterprise involving the whole person, including emotion. If true, the relationship between intellectual virtues and emotion needs to be further explored.
Why Do Intellectual Virtues Matter?
Then, why are intellectual virtues important? More specifically, why should we choose intellectual character over other important values as our primary educational aim? King and Baehr offer almost identical answers to these questions. King argues, as the subtitle of his book suggests, that intellectual virtues are practically important in various areas of everyday life, including education, relationships, citizenship, and general “success” in life (6). Similarly, Baehr groups currently prevailing ideals or purposes of education into three categories—academic, social and political, and economic and professional—and shows how intellectual virtues are related to and support all three.
First, intellectual virtues help us academically. As Baehr acknowledges, knowledge and skills are crucial goals and it is indeed very hard to teach for intellectual virtues without teaching for knowledge and skills. But the opposite is also true. King rightly states that intellectual inquiry often presents many unexpected challenges that our current knowledge and skills alone cannot overcome. In that case, we need the virtue of intellectual perseverance. Intellectual virtues also tell us how to use our knowledge and skills wisely. As shown above, only the virtuous person will apply their knowledge and skills for the right object, at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reason.
Second, intellectual virtues help us become good neighbors and responsible citizens. Although intellectual virtues are not synonymous with moral virtues, virtuous thinking is a precondition for loving and just behavior. According to Baehr, “the quality of a person’s moral character depends significantly on the quality of his or her intellectual character” (24). The current social and political climate of this country—marked by intractable problems, deep polarization, proliferation of fake news and partisan media, and decreasing civic participation, to name a few—makes the necessity of intellectual virtues all the more pronounced. In an article published in this journal last year, King convincingly demonstrates how our crumbling public discourse can be attributed to the lack of intellectual virtues and how they can provide us with concrete guidelines for engaging in civic dialogue.5
Finally, intellectual virtues can help us succeed in our workplace. It is no secret that many of our students come to college to improve their job prospects. King points out that most college graduates change jobs and even professions several times and that it is thus better for students to strive for transferable skills and intellectual virtues rather than accumulating knowledge for one specific job. Supporting this point, Baehr presents how top companies like Google actually look to hire people with intellectual virtues, such as curiosity, thoroughness, open-mindedness, tenacity, and humility, because they make excellent thinkers and problem solvers.
Schultze’s view of education as calling offers a helpful gateway into understanding the three groups of educational ideals and intellectual virtues’ relationship to each of them from a distinctively Christian worldview, although that is not the main focus of the book. According to Schultze, calling is not just a job or career, but “an orientation to grateful, sacrificial living” (33). In his understanding of Genesis 2:15 (“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it”), work is synonymous with service and sometimes means worship as well. Through our “servant caring,” we are to “honor God by using all of our gifts and resources for God’s glory” (33). In addition, the word “garden” signifies the whole world. Thus, our calling as Christian educators is to foster our students “to cultivate God’s world in the service of others to God’s glory” (34).
Schultze further argues that Jesus’s two greatest commandments in Mark 12:30–31—loving God and loving neighbor—are basically a restatement of this biblical view of calling. We fulfill our calling when we serve God and others with “heartfelt compassion” and “skilled excellence,” what he calls the two dimension of Christian love (caritas) (34). Although Schultze does not elaborate this idea, I believe that the connection he makes between vocation and love helps conceive a compelling Christian answer to why we should seek intellectual virtues in conjunction with other important educational aims. It goes something like this: from a Christian viewpoint, all those academic, social and political, and economic and professional ideals of education are simply different yet overlapping ways in which we try to love God, people, and the world. Love requires knowledge, and intellectual virtues make us love better by helping us gain more and better knowledge about whom and what we love. Yet, even more profoundly, the Bible says that love itself is a virtue, the most important one at that. Once meditating on the famous passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7 I was struck by how love contains or subsumes most of the intellectual virtues mentioned above, including carefulness, humility, honesty, perseverance, courage, open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, and charity. To grow in love means, in large measure, to grow in intellectual virtues.6
How Do We Teach Intellectual Virtues?
Then, how do we teach our students to grow in intellectual virtues? The bulk of The Excellent Mind is devoted to delineating individual intellectual virtues, and King only briefly talks about how we can develop them in its last chapter, although he argues that the first step in growing in intellectual virtues is to clearly understand what they are. The second and third steps involve accurately assessing the current status of one’s intellectual virtues and implementing proven plans to improve them. Regarding mapping our own virtues, King reminds us that many of us are neither fully virtuous nor fully vicious. Rather, we are intellectually incontinent or continent. Both the incontinent and continent persons understand and value intellectual virtues, yet they also have competing desires. While the continent person overcomes such desires and manages to behave in intellectually virtuous ways, the incontinent person often succumbs to them. Still, even the former cannot be equated with an intellectually virtuous person because an intellectually virtuous person does not feel strong desires hindering their pursuit of truth, knowledge, and understanding in the first place.
King suggests the following as ways to make progress in intellectual virtues:
gain direct instruction about intellectual virtues, 2) get motivated to become virtuous, 3) find virtuous friends and mentors, and 4) start practicing virtuous acts. Surely, they all sound great, but King is fairly light on details. In contrast, Baehr’s principal aim in Deep in Thought is to “provide a concrete account of what it looks like to teach for intellectual virtues” (3). Hence, the entire book, except the introduction and the first two chapters, is concerned with what educators can and should do in and outside of the classroom to create a learning environment conducive to intellectual character formation.
Although every chapter provides some helpful information, I found chapter three, “Principles,” and chapter four, “Postures,” particularly illuminating. They confirmed my hunch that intellectual virtues cannot be taught by merely adopting a few “magic” pedagogical tools. As he presents his ten principles of virtue-oriented teaching, Baehr states that “teaching for intellectual virtues isn’t strictly a matter of what we do in the classroom; it’s also a matter of what we believe and how we are oriented” (54). The ten principles are 1) process, not product; 2) active, not passive; 3) depth, not breadth; 4) messy, not tidy; 5) relational, not transactional; 6) bottom-up, not top-down; 7) collaborative, not competitive; 8) holistic, not atomistic; 9) growth, not fixed mindset; and 10) realistic, not naïve. I cannot even briefly sketch these principles here, but it should not be too difficult to see why and how they are important for teaching intellectual virtues. It is a long and arduous process that requires the same virtues on the part of those who try to teach them.
Postures are what Baehr calls a “middle ground between pedagogical principles and practices” (71). They are “the attitudes or stances we adopt in the classroom, including attitudes toward ourselves and our students” (72). Although similar, postures are not the same as virtues. While postures are under our voluntary control, meaning we can choose to adopt them, we cannot simply choose to be virtuous. Baehr specifically examines four postures, one negative and three positive. He suggests that we let go of our posture of control and instead adopt postures of presence, humility, and openness and receptivity. He shares how he previously sought to maintain control over his students—out of good intentions, of course—depriving his students and himself of opportunities to build meaningful relationships, engage in genuine conversation, and encourage spontaneity, wonder, and imagination, all critical to practicing intellectual virtues.
The postures of presence, humility, and openness and receptivity, which Baehr commends to us instead, are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, all rooted in an interpersonal, character-centered, and holistic view of education. Presence requires us to be with our students physically, mentally, and emotionally—here and now. Humility is about knowing and accepting our limitations and weaknesses. Similarly, a posture of openness and receptivity involves knowing our students and accepting their limitations and weaknesses. It is not hard to recognize that we are unlikely to be open and receptive to our students unless we are already present and humble. Baehr reminds himself: “Instead of attempting, by sheer force of will, to muster an open and receptive posture toward my students, I might do better to focus first on acknowledging my limitations and becoming more present to myself and to my students” (86).
If the culture of control, mastery, and perfectionism is as pervasive in today’s higher education as Baehr suggests, where can teachers find the motivation and power to be more open, humble, and hospitable? In other words, what can help teachers of intellectual virtues become virtuous themselves? This is where I find Schultze’s short book relevant and valuable even though it does not address intellectual virtues directly. It consists of thirty chapters after an introduction, and each of those chapters is exactly three pages, plus a short reflection question. The title of every chapter is a call for a specific practice constituting servant teaching. Schultze writes: “We teach through faith. We teach by skill. We teach with virtue. In other words, we faithfully practice skilled teaching as virtuous persons. I call this serving teaching—serving our students by teaching them with faith, skill, and virtue. In the process, we serve God as well” (22).
It is easy to see how some of his specific practices are directly related to promoting certain intellectual virtues discussed so far. Consider, for example, “Welcome Doubters” (curiosity, autonomy, and open-mindedness), “Pray Humbly” (humility), “Forestall Cheating” (honesty), “Grade Fairly” (carefulness and fair-mindedness), “Promote Hospitality” (open-mindedness and charity), and “Cultivate Civil Discourse” (all of the above). But more broadly, most of Schultze’s suggestions are offered to create the same kind of learning environment as Baehr’s aforementioned principles and postures seek to create, one in which both teachers and students can grow together in intellectual virtues.
Schultze emphasizes that the key to such an endeavor is thankfulness. He says that “[t]he most important virtue for servant teaching is gratitude” and that “gratitude is the missing first chapter in books on Christian pedagogy” (29). This is why the first chapter of Servant Teaching is entitled “Fill Your Heart with Gratitude” and the last chapter “Conclude Doxologically.” Thanksgiving is our most proper response to all the wonderful gifts God has given us freely, including our minds, talents, time, education, energy, resources, institutions, colleagues, and students. More importantly, however, we should be grateful to God for his saving grace, the gospel of reconciliation between us sinners and him through Jesus Christ. As Schultze rightly points out, “[t]he more deeply we know that we are unconditionally loved, the more deeply we can love our students” (30).
This leads to another virtue crucial to our effort to educate for intellectual virtues: forgiveness. To paraphrase Schultze, I believe that forgiveness is the missing last chapter in books on Christian pedagogy. For us to adopt and maintain a posture of humility toward ourselves and of openness and receptivity toward our students, we should be able to forgive ourselves and our students whenever we all fall short. To recall the incident I shared at the beginning of this essay, I had to forgive the student who gave me those heart-wrenching comments before I could continue loving and teaching him and my other students. But more importantly, I first had to forgive myself for having been a mediocre teacher. That is why I constantly remind myself of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous quote and share it with my students, although it was said in a different context: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”7 It is no coincidence to me that forgiveness is the theme of the last book by the late Tim Keller, whose intellectual engagement with both Christians and non-Christians exemplified many intellectual virtues, including curiosity, carefulness, humility, honesty, open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, and charity.8
The books reviewed here make us rethink our calling as educators: why we teach, what we teach, and how we become better and faithful teachers. At a deeper level, they also reveal that intellectual character formation is a lot like Christian discipleship. Or, the former is a critical part of the latter. Both involve a long and arduous process with constant ups and downs. On this earth, we will never become perfectly virtuous either intellectually or morally, but that does not mean that we cannot set reasonable and realistic goals and strive for them. Christian discipleship and intellectual virtue education both require a whole-person commitment, yet we are not asked to give up what we have been doing as scholars and teachers in our own disciplines, just as we are not to give up our different vocations when we decide to follow Christ. Finally, in both endeavors, we have the ultimate teacher and example who is the founder and perfecter of our faith. Yet, Jesus did not simply demonstrate what we must do and how we should live. He was the true servant leader and teacher, loving us in our weakness and foolishness and bearing our sins for us. He also now lives and empowers us to put on his character as we try to achieve even greater things than he did. As Schultze states, “[b]y the grace of God, the fruit of the spirit can form our characters as servant teachers” (22–23).
Cite this article
- Philip E. Dow, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 16.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicom- achaen.6.vi.html.
- Bent Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2010); Bent Flyvbjerg, Todd Landman, and Sanford Schram, eds., Real Social Science: Applied Phronesis. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
- Dow’s seven intellectual virtues are courage, carefulness, tenacity, fair-mindedness, curiosity, honesty, and humility.
- Nathan King, “How Intellectual Virtues Can Help Us Build Better Discourse,” Christian Scholar’s Review 51, no. 3 (Summer 2022): 315–332.
- Esther Lightcap Meek explains the relationship between love and knowing within what she calls covenant epistemology this way: “If love is at the core of all things, if reality is, at its core, the highly sophisticated interpersonal act of gift, then knowing is quite sensibly a responding gesture of love. We love in order to know. Love, not bare information amassing, should characterize the way we relate to the world” (17). See Meek’s A Little Manual for Knowing (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books: 2014).
- Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, with a new introduction by An- drew J. Bacevich (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press: 2008), 63.
- Timothy Keller, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? (New York, NY: Viking: 2022).