Valuing Virtues

For some years I was involved in the Values Education Council, which was a worthy though fairly weak voice in the UK educational debate during the 1990s and 2000s. Happily, its main concern – the promotion of healthy values in society – remains important to many UK schools; and, thanks especially to my former colleague on the Council, Neil Hawkes, Values-based Education is making an impact worldwide.

I very much endorse that approach, but have two simple reservations. The first is that the very concept of ‘values’ is contestable – or, if not contested, then arguably confused. It is exactly the sort of concept that requires philosophical inquiry and reflection to become meaningful and, yes, valuable (!)

The second is that even values that might be regarded as common to all human societies – say, trust or co-operation – are better framed as commitments from individuals rather than aspirations for collectives. We can all mouth the language of values and ideals, but if we do not practise virtues appropriate to their realisation, our words will be hollow. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, even more simply, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” 

Listing, let alone nurturing, such qualities is not simple, though; and it is all the more challenging to include necessary, but often neglected, mental qualities, such as flexibility and clarity of thought, or awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge, along with ambition to know more.

Art Costa calls such qualities ‘Habits of Mind’, but philosophers since ancient times have thought of them as ‘intellectual virtues’.  To this day they are distinguished from ‘moral’ virtues, but they are none the less valuable. They are not only paths to other values or goods; they are values in themselves, part of what Aristotle called a ‘good’ or fulfilling life.

The Valuing Virtues course that I have developed draws on Aristotle and many other sources to highlight 8 key Personal Virtues (qualities of character), 8 key Social Virtues (collaborative dispositions) and 8 Key Intellectual Virtues (cognitive capacities), and to demonstrate steps by which both teachers and learners can strengthen not just their commitment to such virtues, but their practice of them.

I believe and hope that many teachers, especially headteachers, will see the value of this way of approaching values and virtues development in their schools. It not only has historical pedigree; it is probably also the best balanced and thought through approach to this most vital strand of young people’s education. It would be chime particularly well with the promotion of the Learner Profile in IB schools.

Copyright © 2017, Roger Sutcliffe, All rights reserved