The Challenge and Benefits of Educating for Intellectual Virtues


By Steve Porter, Board Member

Did you ever read your kids the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books? In each chapter, a parent has a behavior problem with her child (e.g., cleaning up his room, taking a bath, talking back) and the parent calls around the neighborhood to ask if any of the other parents have the same problem. The response from the other parents is always the same: “Oh, goodness no, my Jenny loves taking baths. I am so sorry your child isn’t like my Jenny.” Whatever the problem is, the other parents’ kids are golden. Finally, someone will suggest that the parent call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle because she has a reputation for remedying childhood disobedience. When the parent calls Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, she is always sympathetic and always has a guaranteed cure. While Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle does much better in her response than the earlier parents’ counsel, even Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cures are a bit quick and easy. I found myself hoping that merely reading the stories to my kids would solve the often familiar problems! If only getting our kids to do what we know would be good for them was so easy. It’s not, but why?

While the reasons kids don’t do what we want can be complex, often it’s quite simple. Children do not do what we want them to do for the same reason we often don’t do what other people want us to do. Put simply: we want to do something else. Humans have these things called wills and our wills are guided by our desires and our desires become ingrained in us such that we are predisposed to act in certain ways and not in others. If you put a chocolate chip cookie in front of me, chances are I am going to eat it. That’s because I desire as many chocolate chip cookies as I can get. Indeed, I desire them above every other food group and my will doesn’t stand much of a chance of resisting. The basic psychology is fairly straightforward. The end result is: it is challenging to get persons to do something other than what they want to do.

Of course, one tempting solution is to develop a countervailing desire that ends up trumping the previously dominant desire. In other words, if I desired to look good at the pool more than the gratification of eating too many cookies, my will could resist eating the cookies due to the stronger desire to look good at the pool. This is called a diet! A diet is usually tied to something you want more (weight loss) than the oily, sugary, salty, high-calorie foods. But the problem with diets is that they often fail to deal with our desires for oily, sugary, salty, high-calorie foods. Once the countervailing desire diminishes (for example, we lose the weight), we go back to eating what we ate before (and we gain the weight back). If we really want to change when it comes to what we eat, we are going to have to deal with the roots of these deeply entrenched desires when it comes to food. In other words, we will have to retrain our appetite. But that is a long and challenging journey for most us.

Same thing holds for education. The easiest way to get your child to study math when she doesn’t want to study math is to give her something else she desires more (a good grade, money for good grades, candy!). She can then use her desire for a good grade or the money or candy to motivate her to study math. She’d rather do something else instead, but as long as there is this countervailing desire for a good grade or money or candy that trumps her desire to quit studying math, she will keep studying.

But this method of motivating learning has the same problem as diets. Once the countervailing desire diminishes (she doesn’t care about good grades or money or candy), the motivation to study is gone and we go back to our dominant desires. In fact, this way of motivating education often results in the same pattern as dieting: students (and dieters) work really, really hard for two weeks to reach their goal and then go back to normal.

So, if we want lasting change in our children’s learning habits, what do we do? It’s called an intellectual virtues education. I’m serious. An intellectual virtues education takes seriously our students’ desires to learn. Why do they want to learn? Why don’t they want to learn? How can we help them see the goodness of learning? What are their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning (e.g., open-mindedness, humility, courage, etc.)? The point of an intellectual virtues education is not to give them some other good (grades, money, candy!) and use that to motivate their attempts to learn. The point of an intellectual virtues education is to help train their intellectual appetites. But that will be a long and difficult journey for most of our children.  

Here is a take-home point: an intellectual virtues education is a long game; it takes time. If you want an educational model that helps your child learn short-term strategies to do well on tests (akin to losing weight fast), an intellectual virtues education is not for you. But if you want an educational model that helps your child develop an appetite for thinking well and learning about important areas of human thought, then an intellectual virtues education is for you. It’s a challenging road, but it truly is a better way to learn.