Democracy, Philosophy, Political, Self, Uncategorized, University of Chicago

Designing a course to teach character

[Inspired by this article on teaching intellectual virtues intentionally.]

Classes should be about more than their subject matter. Typically, this means using the subject matter to teach general skills of thinking, such as how to make an argument, how to give constructive criticism, or how to formulate a thesis claim. But classes should be about even more than this — or rather, neither the subject matter nor the thinking skills will matter to students in the long run unless they also gain the kind of character that values these things. Intellectual virtues like the love of truth, honesty, and practical wisdom are crucial components to character, but character is also something more: a stable harmony of these virtues, whose enactment strengthens instead of weakens their unity.

How can a class teach character?

In this post I want to explore some thoughts about how teaching unified methods of reasoning can also teach character. I especially want to consider what teaching multiple methods can bring to a course because you can play the methods off each other, looking at each one’s strengths and weaknesses from the others’ points of view. First I need to look at what it means to think under the discipline of a method, then we can turn to how methods have the ability to harmonize and create intellectual virtues. Finally, we can consider how moving from thinking with a single method to multiple methods can support students in gaining classic liberal intellectual virtues like the love of serious argument and respect for opposing positions.

Using a method to determine inquiry trains character. It regiments emotions and fixes responses to discoveries. Signing on to using a method is putting the consistency and comprehensibility of one’s thoughts ahead of the straightforward expression of one’s ideas. In either case, one faces the challenge of thinking through a problem in order to achieve a larger end. One of the deepest virtues of using a method is that it organizes one’s thoughts into understandable forms one can communicate to other people (often even those who don’t know the method) and also to oneself, later on after the feeling of the moment has disappeared in memory.

Take, for instance, the question of whether it’s ethical to allow a 17-year-old to forego a life-saving and relatively straightforward medical procedure because it would require a blood transfusion, which is against the 17-year-old’s religion. (He’s a Jehovah’s witness, say.) The doctor responsible for the boy could either request that the state take guardianship over him and force him to receive the transfusion, or the doctor could accede to the boy’s wishes and potentially allow him to die. We could argue the issue over drinks at a bar, or in a group of friends at a party. The conversation would last as long as it met the mood of the group, or failing that, until everyone who wanted to speak had their fill or was made to shut up and move on. Even if one or all of us had to make the actual choice, there would be no sense in which we necessarily felt the casual conversation had to explore all possible angles or convince the average person the chosen option was right. In short, our consideration of the ethical dilemma would follow the contingent rhythms and desires in our minds at the time — on their own, they are not beholden to anything more than the satisfaction of friendly argument or discussion.

Signing on to think with a method means putting putting certain norms for what the discussion should do or cover ahead of whether or not it’s pleasant to do so at the time. To be clear, these higher order rules have their own feeling of satisfaction when we follow them, but the aim is different.

[To be continued at another time…]

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