We show courage when we are willing to suffer a potential loss or harm for the sake of some greater good—when we judge that a certain risk is worth taking. We show intellectual courage when we subject ourselves to a potential loss or harm in an intellectual context, for example, in the context of learning or in the pursuit of truth.
One memorable example of intellectual courage is Edward R. Murrow’s famous World War II news broadcasts. Murrow subjected himself to harrowing conditions (conducting live broadcasts from London rooftops with German bombs raining down around him) for the sake of reaching the truth. He felt that the American public had a “right to know” what was happening during the war and he was willing, for a time, to place this right above his own well-being.
If this is what intellectual courage looks like, what does it have to do with middle school education? In fact, intellectual courage wasn’t initially on IVA’s list of “master virtues.” However, as we reflected more on the obstacles to getting middle schoolers to engage learning in an active and positive way, its importance quickly became apparent. Middle schoolers are an inhibited and self-conscious bunch. They are quick to judge and criticize and slow to take risks. This mentality extends beyond lunch hour and passing periods into the classroom, where they tend to be reluctant to share their honest opinions, speak in front of the class, or admit that they actually like learning. Tragically, they succumb to social fears and in doing so forfeit a great many intellectual opportunities and goods. This suggests that intellectual courage—far from being irrelevant to middle school education—is profoundly necessary.
How, then, can teachers foster intellectual courage? This is no small task. Here are a few steps in the right direction:
1. They can create a classroom culture in which students feel “safe” and accepted. Students need to know that if they say something wrong or “stupid,” they won’t be judged or ridiculed for it.
2. Teachers can also create a classroom culture in which intellectual risk-taking and struggle are encouraged and rewarded. In a previous post, I referenced a recent NPR story on competing educational perspectives about intellectual struggle. According to the story, certain Eastern cultures view intellectual struggle as an important part of the learning process that should regularly be used by teachers to promote intellectual growth, while Western cultures tend to eschew and disincentivize intellectual struggle. The latter is an unwise approach if we are committed to giving students frequent opportunities to practice intellectual courage.
3. A related step is to model and promote intellectual humility (another master virtue). Intellectual humility is partly a matter of “owning”—instead of running from or denying—one’s intellectual weaknesses and limitations. This frees us from the fear of having to appear to be something we are not, which in turn makes intellectual risk-taking seem a little less costly.
As parents attempting to nurture intellectual courage in our children, we can take many of the same steps. We can provide safe and supportive home environments for our children—environments in which they are not led to feel that their worth is measured by, say, their grades or other successes (or failures) in school. We can also give them regular opportunities to take intellectual risks, for example, by allowing them to take a class or participate in an activity that is outside their comfort zone, or by encouraging them to take a novel or creative approach to a class assignment or project. And we certainly can model intellectual humility ourselves and praise it when we see it in them.