That which makes education liberal is not the acquisition of virtue, for that would subordinate such education to some extrinsic good, and the essential characteristic of an education that makes it liberal is precisely its intrinsic good, the fact that its value does not depend on some good outside itself.

I wish to offer some thoughts and encourage discussion on the question of whether education in general and a liberal arts education, in particular, can or should teach persons to be virtuous. Both John Henry Newman in his Idea of a University, as well as Russell Kirk, in an essay entitled “Can Virtue Be Taught?” offer what might be considered surprising answers.

For Newman, liberal education as the acquisition of systematic knowledge of the whole of reality for its own sake, or in the case of physical activity, the enjoyment of the activity itself and in its excellent execution, does not aim at anything beyond itself–not at wealth, health, fortune, or fame. Similarly, that which makes education liberal is not the acquisition of virtue, for that would subordinate such education to some extrinsic good, and the essential characteristic of an education that makes it liberal is precisely its intrinsic good, the fact that its value does not depend on some good outside itself. Consequently, while liberal education may very well provide one with the knowledge and discipline that makes virtue possible, its essence and worth does not depend on making students virtuous. For this reason, Newman concludes:

Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view of faith. Philosophy, however, enlightened, however, profound, give no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;–these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge…they are the objects…I am advocating; I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless. (“The Idea of a University 91, John Henry Newman)

Now the advantage Newman sees in clearly delineating what a liberal arts education is in its essence from the aim of cultivating virtue is twofold. First, by clarifying that a liberal arts education is a good in itself, we are able to see exactly why medicine, law, engineering and other such applied bodies of knowledge do not constitute the liberal arts. They all aim at some practical good, some good other than knowledge for its own sake, and Newman wants to emphasize that there is such a thing as knowledge for its own sake, that knowing is a good in itself. Second, by uncovering what the nature of a liberal arts education is, he is able to preserve it from the criticism that it often fails to make men better. For some would argue that if its alleged purpose is to make men better and, in practice, it actually fails to achieve this goal, then it has no value and, therefore, there is no reason to pursue a liberal arts education. Newman concedes that examples abound to support the contention that liberally education persons are not always virtuous. But by denying that making men good is the principle good of a liberal arts education and affirming that it’s a good in itself, its failure to cultivate virtue is no reason to abandoning its pursuit. But that raises the question as to whether a liberal arts education, or any type of education, for that matter, can educate students in virtue, even if that’s not its primary purpose.

Russell Kirk, in a short essay, “Can Virtue Be Taught?” also addresses the relationship between education, including a liberal arts education that instructs students in the virtues, and the formation students in the actual practice of virtue. Kirk reminds us that for Socrates, as we understand him through Plato, virtue and wisdom are basically identical. When one fails to act virtuously it is because he fails to understand in what virtue consists, the good at which it aims and the specific good sought in relation to a broader range and hierarchy of goods. Kirk is skeptical of the ability of schools and schoolmasters to teach students to be virtuous through an education in “intellectual virtue,” Kirk’s shorthand for learning to act virtuously through learning what virtue is. He therefore, agrees with Aristophanes, gadfly of Socrates, the famous gadfly of Athens, who thought the possessors of virtue in Ancient Athens were not “some presumptuous elite of young men trailing effeminately after some sophist or other…[but] the men of old families, reared to righteousness and courage, brought up in good moral habits, from their earliest years accustomed to discipline and duty.”

Kirk points to the situation of ancient Athens and Rome as proof that “the sprig of virtue,” as he says, “is nurtured in the soil of sound prejudice,” an intuitive sense and habit of virtuous activity one acquires very early on through the example and education one receives from one’s family. He notes that just as in Athens, so in Rome, as the mores majorum, the traditional, ancestral manners, habits and customs, diminished, speculative ethics spread, along with education in intellectual virtue. But, as we know, in both cases, efforts to make the youth virtuous through the philosophical study of ethics, at least in the absence of a strong familial and cultural foundation in virtue, could not prevent the collapse of these two great civilizations.

Of course, one need not strain to see that America is suffering the demise of its mores majorum like the ancient Greek and Roman societies before it. But it’s also clear that there’s little hope for America if the social order depends on a virtuous citizenry, but families aren’t teaching virtue and schools can’t do it. While that’s the general tenor and direction of Kirk’s conclusion, he always seems to walk to the very edge of the precipice of hopelessness without stepping off, and manages to find a small ray of sunshine breaking through the bleak clouds of despondency.

Kirk admits that the Church, for example, must continue “to offer a pattern for ordering the soul of the believer; and to open a window upon the transcendent realm of being.” Such exhortation will enable the occasional individual to live the virtues, producing great saints and heroes. His point though is that without the family, mentor or local community, this will be more the exception than the rule and, as such, there won’t be the widespread thriving of virtue in society necessary to sustain our civilization. Though he doesn’t explicitly say so, one can reasonably infer that, like the Church, just because schools cannot by themselves ensure a virtuous society, they should nonetheless teach virtue, both for the occasional individual who might benefit, but for the preservation of a civilization’s knowledge, if not the practice, of virtue. At least, then, the small remnant that remains after its collapse will have the resources to fortify and understand the virtues they are attempting to practice.

One may also plausibly (and cheerfully) draw another conclusion from Kirk’s remarks. Although we cannot expect schools to make virtuous people merely by teaching them about virtue, schools and education in general do have a role to play in assisting the family in training their children in virtue. He remarks that the classical education of the American founders and the English public schools imparted intellectual virtue that, on the whole materialized in a high level private and public virtue. Through studying the ancient Greek and Roman classics, read in their original languages, the founders and English public school students encountered examples of men of actual virtue and came to understand such virtues as Virgil’s labor, pietas and fatum (the dignity and value of work, piety–or duty to the divine, family, community and state, and cooperation with one’s providential purpose in life). In both cases, this education fostered their lives of active virtue, but whether with the founders or English school boys, this would not have had the effect it did without having first been inculcated in a good deal of virtue within their own families. “For,” as Kirk says, “the study and reflection necessary for the attainment of intellectual virtue cannot unaided put flesh upon virtue’s dry bones.”

But if schools and, by extension, education in general has a role to play in the cultivation of active virtue in student’s lives, can such education bear fruit when the contemporary family is in such disarray? Kirk gives us a hint when he says that its the “family exemplar or mentor” that is needed. Suppose a school could make full use of the sources Kirk says are indispensable for a child’s acquisition of the virtues. That school might, for example, consist of carefully chosen faculty capable of modeling virtue by striving to live virtuous lives. It might also include college and high school interns, who in assisting teachers teachers, exemplify to the students what the pursuit of virtue looks like when the students reach the next stage of their development and education. In addition to teaching a life of virtue through example, however, it might also provides one-on-one mentoring, the kind of mentoring Kirk thinks essential to the practice of virtue. Each student could meet regularly with the same teacher over the course of his time at the school to forge an intimate mentoring relationship, aimed at getting to know the student fully, including his/her personality, interests, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, virtues and vices. Through this close, personal relationship, the teacher would then be able to advise, assist and challenge the student in his/her full development as a person, including his/her practice of virtue. Because this mentoring is done in close collaboration with the parents, the family remains integral part of the student’s moral formation. The school might also support the family in this endeavor by providing adult instruction in the knowledge and practice of the same virtues the school strives to develop in its students.

In conclusion, I propose that should a school implement such a program it would be fulfilling the unique role schools can and should play in a student’s moral education by nurturing the culture of virtue that Kirk believes must grow organically from family, mentor and local community if a young person’s education in virtue is to blossom into its actual practice. Admittedly, this does not address the question of how the subjects studied in such a school would also be important to teaching virtue, but I’ll leave that question for a second essay on the importance of what Kirk calls the moral imagination.

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The featured image is “The Schoolmaster” by Otto Rethel (completed by 1892) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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