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Virtues word cloud

Virtue formation is at a Christian college can be easily integrated into the classroom curriculum.

As Christian educators, our goal or telos is nothing less than the grandiose aim to help our students be formed into the likeness of Christ. This brief paper seeks to provide a direction and a few suggestions as to how moral education and the formation of Christ-likeness—this telos of Christian education—can be exercised via the process of virtue training, or more generically referred to as character formation.

Kinds of Virtues

Classically, the categories of the types of virtues are listed as the intellectual virtues listed later in this article. These include curiosity, autonomy, humility, etc.[1]

Cardinal Virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude and are understood as human virtues. Whereas the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and love are considered gifts from God,  Nevertheless, we can actively and prayerfully seek to prepare our hearts to desire and receive the grace of faith, hope, and love.

The New Testament also provides us with several lists of virtues or fruits of the spirit that the faithful should strive to manifest in the lives, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22; see also Rom. 12:9–21; I Cor. 13:4–8, 13; Col. 3:12–16; II Pet 1:5–7).

But how are we to develop these virtues within our lives and the lives of our students? We are blessed with the power of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit to aid us in reflecting these attributes in our lives. But are there some practical steps we can take to make ourselves open to the action of the Spirit and the guidance of the word?

Yes, there is prayer and practice. Below, I hope to show what some of the practices might look like.

Aristotle’s Three-Step Framework for Virtue Formation

An analysis of how virtues are formed in a person’s soul highlights the need to first define the characteristics of a virtue and then to habitually practice such virtuous behavior until it becomes part of one’s disposition; part of one’s soul. No easy task, but it is achievable, at least in part.

In Book II of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that “virtue, then, is a habit disposed toward action by deliberate choice, being at the mean relative to us, and defined by reason and as a prudent man would define it.”[2]

The mean, or the Golden Mean, as it is classically referred to is the action that falls between two actions of vice; an action of either excess or deficiency. To illustrate: a courageous person does not act cowardly by running away from a challenge or crises nor does the person act foolhardy in response to such a challenge. That it is to say, the courageous person acts wisely in knowing first what the courageous action is to take and how to enact it without being either cowardly or foolish (it is not necessarily courageous to take on a charging Grizzly bear!).

Aristotle’s schema for developing virtues can be summarized as follows:

  1. Name and define the virtue and its excess and deficiency.
  2. Habitually practice the virtue by applying the virtuous action when and where it is appropriate.
  3. Continue to habituate the virtue until it becomes part of your disposition, that is, you no longer have to think through what action to take, but rather you act out the virtue because it is part of your character. 

Aristotle’s framework for naming and defining, then habitually practicing a virtue until it becomes part of our disposition is the framework we can use for teaching our students any virtues. Here are some examples regarding teaching educational, intellectual, and moral virtues.

 

Educational and Intellectual Virtues

In his most recent work, Jason Baehr, Philosophy professor and recipient of the Templeton Foundation Award, lists nine key educational virtues, their definitions, and each with a memorable slogan to help embed them within one’s mind and heart.

Here are his nine key intellectual virtues with descriptions and what he refers to as slogans for putting the virtue into practice:[3]

Name of Virtue Definition of Virtue Putting the Virtue into Practice (Slogan)
Curiosity

A disposition to wonder, ponder, and ask why. A thirst for understanding and a desire to explore.

 

Ask questions!
Autonomy A capacity for active, self-directed thinking. An ability to think and reason for oneself. Think for yourself!
Humility A willingness to own one’s intellectual limitations and mistakes. Unconcerned with intellectual status or prestige. Admit what you don’t know!
Attentiveness A readiness to be “personally present” in the learning process. Keep distractions at bay. Notices important details. Look and listen!
Carefulness A disposition to notice and avoid intellectual pitfalls and mistakes. Strives for accuracy. Get it right!
Thoroughness A disposition to seek and provide explanations. Unsatisfied with mere appearances or easy answers. Probes for deeper meaning and understanding. Go deep!
Open-mindedness An ability to think outside of the box. Gives a fair and honest hearing to competing perspectives Think outside the box!
Courage A readiness to persist in thinking or communicating in the face of fear, including fear of embarrassment or failure. Take risks!
Tenacity A willingness to embrace intellectual challenge and struggle. Keeps its eyes on the prize and doesn’t give up. Embrace struggle!

 

A useful virtue-based self-assessment tool for each of the nine intellectual virtues is included in an appendix in Baehr’s Deep in Thought.[4]

Some of these virtues and slogans can be enriched with examples and models drawn from  .[5] For instance, selections are drawn from various early church figures to fill the month of February with admonitions and examples on the virtue of humility.

 

Moral Virtues

Toward the specific goal of forming one’s moral character, the book of Proverbs can serve as a resource to discover what the sages of old understood to be the tools necessary for informing and forming the souls of the young (and old).

A study by David Bland, professor of Homiletics, of the Proverbs explicates the practical advice and practices these ancient ones used to shape a person’s life in relationship to the Lordship of God.[6] These formation tools include the basic framework discussed above:

  1. Name and Define the virtue with verbal instruction and reinforcement, both positive and negative (Prov. 25:11–15; 26:1–9; 27:14–19).
  2. Put the virtue into habitual practice with the following exercises:
  • Observation of life experiences, as well as role playing, and discernment (Prov. 15:13–17; 33–16:9).
  • Communal Practice in the context of specifically defined communities such as a family, neighborhood, town, or cultural group – and in a community like a classroom or an educational institution (Prov. 22:6; 31:10–31).

Integrating Virtue Formation into the Curriculum

The formation of a Christian telos, virtue or character formation, can be integrated into a course structure without any major curricular overhaul or specific course design change.

Here are a few specific strategies to help students process the concept of a particular virtue and put it into practice:

  • Ask Questions: Begin a class session, by asking your students to entertain the questions, “Who are you today?” (As opposed to, “How are you today?”). “What virtue(s) do you desire to further develop as part of your characters?” (Provide a list of key virtues applicable to the course). “How are you going to try and develop your selected virtue?” (Provide a brief overview of Aristotle’s schema for virtue development). Students can write down their responses and can either keep them for themselves or the professor can request the students to turn them in (anonymously or signed).
  • Share a Proverb: Begin a class session with a passage from Proverbs that underscores wise living.
  • Church Fathers: Share selections from the Church Fathers on the development of virtue.[7]
  • Model: Encourage the reflection upon and practice of the selected course virtues by sharing brief stories that manifest the virtues by individuals, literary and Biblical characters, or by historical figures.
  • Select Two or Three Virtues: Or just even one to emphasize through the whole course of study that are pertinent to the nature of the academic content (ex., persistence in a mathematics course). Provide an overview of Aristotle’s approach of habituation in developing virtue. Touch base with the students often to ask them for specific examples of their exercising the virtue(s) and examples of success or progress. Use Baehr’s self-assessment tool.[8]
  • Form Small Student Groups: Such small groups can tackle the task of developing a selected virtue derived from the course of study. The small groups can serve to be mutual encouragers in practicing the virtue and noting individual progress. The small groups could report to the rest of the class at various points in the semester of their respective strategies, progress and failures(!).
  • Create a Personal Proverb: Have students create useful proverbs that are pertinent to their course of study. Mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences more pronouncedly call for some of the intellectual virtues. Literature and history may more naturally call for an emphasis on moral virtues in the analysis of literary characters or historical events. Biblical and theological topics arouse the attention to the theological and moral virtues.

The literary nature and practical function of proverbs are well suited for naming, defining, and potentially practicing a virtue because they are memorable, flexible, situational, familiar, brief, witty, and universal.[9]

In closing, we long to do more for our students and more for the Kingdom of God through our Christian educational institutions. These suggestions might be a humble (a prized virtue to seek!) aid to fulfilling our telos as Christian educators and institutions.

 

References
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[1] There are various lists of the intellectual virtues starting with Aristotle on. See Jason Baehr’s functional list of the intellectual virtues in his, Deep in Thought: A Practical Guide to Teaching for Intellectual Virtues (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press, 2021).

[2] Ibid., 1106b36-7a27.

[3] See Jason Baehr, The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues & Virtue Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pgs. 206-18.

[4] See Baehr, Deep in Thought, Appendix B, pgs. 197-200.

[5] See Cultivating Virtue: Self-Mastery with the Saints. Trans. by A Member of the Order of Mercy (Naples, Italy: Albatross Pub., 2019).

[6] David Bland, Proverbs and the Formation of Character (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2015).

[7] Again, see Cultivating Virtue: Self Mastery with the Saints.

[8] Baehr, Deep in Thought, pgs. 197-200.

[9] Bland, pgs. 71-90.

 

Author

  • Michael R. Young

    Michael R. Young, Ph.D. earned his Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Dallas. He serves as Lecturer in Humanities at Faulkner University and Lecturer in Christian Leadership at Johnson University. He is also the past Director and current Consultant for the Institute of Faith and the Academy; Editor Board Member of Journal of Faith and the Academy; Consulting Editor of the Stone-Campbell Journal; Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Center for Christian Studies; Professor of philosophy, religion, ethics, and humanities. He has published and presented numerous academic papers. Michael lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife Carla. He enjoys the company of their four children, their families, and their five grandchildren.

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