Boot camp for intellectual virtues?

On the lookout for new ways to help kids improve their thinking, I came across the Intellectual Virtues & Education Project (IVEP). And the more I learnt about it, the more I felt like Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22, uncertain about whether to regard the project as a ‘feather in the cap’ or a ‘black eye’.


Dana Elcar as Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22, 1977.

On the one hand, the project seems a laudable success. It champions important values like curiosity, creativity, and intellectual rigour in education. Chalk one up for better thinking in education: it’s a feather in the cap. On the other hand, in at least one pioneering classroom touted by the IVEP, such noble values are dealt a body blow: the virtues of good thinking are being espoused in a disturbingly unthinking way. And that’s a black eye.

The IVEP brings together a multidisciplinary team of scholars from around the world to reflect on and foster intellectual virtues in education. The project director, philosophy professor Jason Baehr, defines intellectual virtues as “the character traits or personal qualities of a good thinker or learner.” He specifically cites curiosity, intellectual humility, intellectual autonomy, attentiveness, carefulness, thoroughness, open-mindedness, courage and tenacity – the so-called ‘master virtues’.

The IVEP intends to put its educational model into practice in a new middle school. The Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach, California aims to develop critical thinkers and lifelong learners who strive for deep understanding and wise application of their knowledge. In addition to its central focus on fostering the ‘master virtues’, the school will encourage students to develop virtues such as reflectiveness, determination, fair-mindedness, imagination, and integrity.

I did wonder how the schools’ leaders settled on their particular taxonomy of intellectual virtues, and why they included certain virtues while excluding other plausible ones, such as critical thinking, reasonableness and consistency. But it was only when I read a media article about the IVEP’s 2012 teacher training seminars that I began to feel distinctly uneasy. The article describes the efforts of one seminar attendee, a third-grade teacher named Agustin Vieyra:

[Mr Vieyra has been] getting students to think about what it means to be open minded, intellectually courageous, and intellectually humble as soon as they start their day. He shared a video he took of a morning call-and-response ritual that sounds like intellectual boot camp.

The students in the video nearly yell: “Be intellectually aggressive. Be intellectually humble. Be respectful of all people and things. Sit like a scholar. Be an intellectual leader.” Some of them raise closed fists as they recite…

U.C. Irvine researcher Elizabeth van Es says what’s kept this type of classroom approach from taking root on a mass scale in public education is that U.S. public schools have a set of institutionalized routines to educate students that don’t leave much room for such out of the box learning.

There’s a bitter irony in students chanting “Be an intellectual leader” in unison, much like the crowd chanting “We’re all individuals” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – a classic example of the stupefying effects of mindless recitation. Another irony lies is the bogus contrast between the extolled “call-and-response ritual” and the damned “institutionalized routines.”

When children are mobilised for action, whose text goes here?

When children are mobilised for action, whose text goes here?

Still more disquieting are the political overtones of the clenched fists, which for me are reminiscent of the raised hand salute in ‘The Third Wave’, Ron Jones’ chilling experiment in fascist groupthink at a Californian high school in 1967. To my mind, there are also uncomfortable parallels between the motto “Be intellectually aggressive” and The Third Wave catch-cry “Strength through discipline.”

Lesson Plan, a documentary about Ron Jones’ social experiment ‘The Third Wave’.

Lesson Plan, a documentary about Ron Jones’ social experiment ‘The Third Wave’.

I wonder how many of the children in Mr Vieyra’s class understand the implications of what they’re saying. Do they sense a dissonance between the praise of intellectual virtues and the expectation of compliant acquiescence? Do they experience the ‘boot camp’ atmosphere as antithetical to free and independent thinking?

It seems to me there’s something authoritarian and quasi-religious* about any class that involves catechistic intonations about virtues – and it doesn’t help that the third-graders’ daily morning routine involves what the teacher describes as “our pledge to our country, our pledge to our school, and our pledge to ourselves and our classroom.”

American children giving the Bellamy salute

American children giving the Bellamy salute. Source unknown.

And yet one of the ‘master virtues’ identified by the Intellectual Virtues Academy (IVA) is intellectual autonomy, which it defines as a capacity for active, self-directed thinking and an ability to think and reason for oneself. In fact, the IVA explicitly mandates that the intellectual virtues (and indeed all academic content)

be pursued in a reflective, intentional manner… teachers will routinely reflect with [students] on why they are learning what they are learning; and they will be challenged to “think outside the box,” generate new ideas and solutions, and consider alternative possibilities.

This, of course, is admirable – a feather in the cap. Equally encouraging is the IVA’s statement that

Students do not become excellent thinkers or inquirers by being passive recipients of tidily packaged bits of information. Accordingly, students at IVA will be expected to take control of their intellectual growth and development. They will be trained to actively engage ideas, ask good questions, demand evidence, and support and defend their convictions.

To deliver on these promises, teachers at the IVA will need to treat intellectual virtues as proposals: tentative, contestable and negotiable proposals about how to think and learn well. And these proposals should remain open to challenge and subject to deliberation and discussion in the classroom.

It would be a mistake for teachers to present a prescribed set of virtues as definitive or impervious to critique. After all, no character trait or thinking strategy is unconditionally virtuous. It’s worth considering examples that challenge our concepts of virtue, such as the polio-stricken Honduran man – a paragon of the ‘master virtue’ of tenacity – who has spent 50 years attempting to build a helicopter out of scavenged bicycle parts. Examples like this provoke us to think in subtle ways about what we value, and why. They suggest that whilst a seeming virtue (like cleaving tenaciously to a goal) is praiseworthy in some instances, it may be foolish or irrational – and perhaps even reprehensible – in others.

Scene from Tyler Bastian’s documentary Everything is Incredible

Scene from Tyler Bastian’s documentary Everything is Incredible

Life is full of moral ambiguity and uncertainty. In the long run, it will be vastly more useful for students to cultivate good judgement than to internalise any particular body of received wisdom. And while the cultivation of good judgement is perhaps exactly what teachers of intellectual virtues are seeking to achieve, a doctrinaire and prescriptive approach will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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* The IVEP is funded by the John Templeton Foundation (JTF). This organisation has been widely criticised both for its conservative and religious ideological bent, and for its funding of research that seeks a scientific basis for non-scientific phenomena. While there is nothing to suggest that the JTF exercises intellectual control over the projects it funds, one critic of the JTF – philosopher Massimo Pigliucci – notes that it is common for researchers to be unconsciously influenced by the agenda of their funding source.

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Postscript #1, 15 June 2014
For another perspective on similar themes, take a look at Jeffrey Aaron Snyder’s provocative article in New Republic entitled ‘Teaching kids grit is all the rage. Here’s what’s wrong with it‘.

The article critiques the ‘Knowledge is Power Program’, a popular approach to character education that focuses on developing seven key character strengths: grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.

To add to the various concerns outlined in Snyder’s article, I’m troubled by inconsistencies between the KIPP’s nominated character strengths and their supposed indicators. I think that remembering and following directions are poor measures of self-control – after all, in exercising self-control we often restrain ourselves in response to our own better judgement, rather than in response to other people’s directions. Similarly, outwardly showing enthusiasm may not correlate with an inner experience of zestfulness, and requiring students to show enthusiasm ‘on demand’ calls to mind a troupe of performing monkeys.

I was also surprised to read in Snyder’s article that Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP program believes the character-strength approach to be “fundamentally devoid of value judgement”, when the approach indisputably endorses the value of the seven character strength traits.

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Postscript #2, 10 September 2019

The following passages are excerpted from the piece ‘Character Education and the Problems of Morality’ written by Emma Worley, co-CEO of The Philosophy Foundation (UK). It appears in The Future of Education: An essay collection (ed. E. Huynh), published by Institute for Public Policy Research.

“An agreed list [of virtues] cannot, however, define what a good character is. Some of these character attributes may seem like fine qualities to have, but there are possible dangerous combinations. Resilience may seem good, but you could be a resilient criminal. In his Taoist text, Chuang Tzu used the story of Robber Chih to highlight the problems with singling out virtues in this way. Robber Chih has all the virtues of a good robber: he is sage, courageous, understanding, righteous and benevolent… We can’t just teach children a list of virtues they need to develop to become successful, and a list of laws they need to follow. There needs to be scrutiny of them, they need to be probed and considered in different ways: they need to be problematised.

Setting up discussions around morality and character in the classroom can help children unpack these complex concepts and virtues, and help them to think for themselves… They recognise that there may be a difference [between what one should do and what one would do], but they may now consider the reasons behind this disparity, and some of them do indeed rethink their former positions because of arguments formulated by their peers. You can see the received beliefs being challenged, but also being upheld, but now because of good reasoning, rather than regurgitation…

[The philosophical enquiry] classroom helps [students] to see different perspectives, and so provides an important part of character and moral education. Understanding and listening to different perspectives can help build tolerance and respect. If you are developing the ability to listen with an open mind and the possibility of change, you are encouraging curiosity… [P]hilosophical enquiry… allows young people to hear and evaluate different arguments and perspectives. It gives them the tools to work things out for themselves, and the confidence to disagree with their friends and colleagues, as well as to change their minds when good reasons are presented…

[I]t is through the children saying controversial things that the others are inspired to respond. If one child says, ‘You can do whatever you want if you can’t get caught!’ another may reply, ’No, because you’ve got to live with the guilt’ and ‘What if everyone did it?’ or ‘No, because when you steal from the shopkeeper you actually affect the shopkeeper’s life, and it has a bad effect.’ These children have considered why it is important to behave in certain ways, and how our actions affect ourselves and others. They have reached these insights through their own reasoning and will therefore have a more powerful motivator for moving beyond being happy simply to be told which ethical framework to follow… What would you prefer: for your children to answer the question ‘Should we be good?’ with ‘Yes, because our teachers and parents tell us to,’ or with, ‘Yes, because our actions, big or small, impact on others and that matters’ ? The latter is more likely to be arrived at as a result of problematising values and virtues and the best way to do this is through philosophical enquiry.

By providing young people with the opportunity not only to learn about character development and morality, but also to question it, probe it and re-evaluate it, we will give them the chance to think deeply.”


The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

2 responses to “Boot camp for intellectual virtues?

  1. Yes it does sound both strangely worrying and encouraging. The IVEP is not ground breaking though. There are many education programmes that are based upon similar lists of learner qualities worth aspiring to or acquiring. the International Baccalaureate’s Learner Profile is probably the best known and most widely used worldwide. But hey, if the Catholics are going back to their Augustinian roots and recognising the importance of deep intellectual rigour then it is a step forward. I would like to see a link to the footage of the children in the classroom. It would be nice to judge for ourselves whether the chanting is as worrying as it sounds.

  2. Thanks Tristan – you make good points. I’d also be interested to see the footage but it doesn’t appear to be publicly available.

    Incidentally, I’ve just been alerted to Alain de Botton’s ’10 commandments for atheists’ – see
    In light of our recent conversation about the religious overtones of intellectual humility, it is striking that even Alain de Botton’s list of virtues – explicitly intended for atheists – includes sacrifice and forgiveness. Both of these strike me as laden with religious connotations – as do the (secular) Sunday sermons presented by de Botton’s cultural enterprise, The School of Life.

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