Intellectual Virtues and "Grit"

IVA has been featured in a national news story about “grit” and education. This is exciting and a further confirmation that what’s happening at the school is part of a much larger movement in the direction of a more personal and “humanizing” approach to education—one that aims to foster the personal qualities or character traits of good thinkers and learners.

But how exactly are intellectual virtues related to grit? One of IVA’s “master virtues” is intellectual tenacity, a willingness to embrace intellectual challenge and struggle. This sounds a lot like grit. In fact, we can think of intellectual tenacity as grit applied to the processes of thinking and learning.

However, understood in this way, grit is just one aspect of good or “virtuous” intellectual character. Other intellectual virtues include curiosity, intellectual humility, attentiveness, intellectual carefulness, and open-mindedness. As this suggests, an intellectual virtues framework allows us to situate the concept of grit within a broader context and to better understand its pros and cons.

One potential con mentioned in the NPR story concerns the way in which trying to make kids work harder, persevere, and become more “gritty” can squelch “intrinsic motivation” or a genuine love of learning. Where the focus is not just grit or intellectual tenacity, but also qualities like open-mindedness, wonder, and curiosity, this problem doesn’t arise. The goal should be to foster grit along with these other important traits, which are closely tied to intrinsic motivation.

But is there, perhaps, a problem with referring to grit and these other traits as “character traits” or “virtues”? The news story raises this question, pointing out that the term “virtue” has moral overtones. While this is a reasonable question, it contains two mistaken assumptions.

First, it assumes a very narrow definition of morality. For millennia, some of world’s best thinkers have described “morality” or being a “good person” in much broader terms. On their view, to be a good person is to love and pursue things that are good. Or, as philosopher Robert Adams puts it, it is a matter of “excellence in being for the good.” Truth, knowledge, and understanding are, of course, among the many good things that life has to offer. Intellectual virtues are simply the character traits required for the successful pursuit of these important goods.

Second, the question betrays a misunderstanding of how broad the concept of character really is. To master a difficult idea or to make a scientific breakthrough, one needs to act, think, and feel in various ways: to care about the truth, ask good questions, focus intently on important details, be willing to consider counter-evidence and alternative explanations, persevere in the face of struggle and failure, and so on. In other words, one needs to be curious, attentive, open-minded, and intellectual tenacious. This underscores the fact that a person’s character bears, not just on how she treats other people, but also on who she is as a thinker and learner.

That’s the focus at IVA. The biggest concern of the administrators and teachers at the school is who students are becoming as thinkers and learners. This is not an alternative to focusing on content standards and academic skills; rather, it is a way of approaching these things—a way that adds greater meaning and purpose to the enterprise of education.