Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A win for the virtues

Just wanted to draw everyone's attention to our colleague Chris Panza's post at A Ku Indeed!, a paean to the epistemic virtues in the wake of Academically Adrift.

Chris' basic idea is that much of academic success comes from habits acquired and reinforced in academic settings.  His coolest idea: We should question the notion that students are long-term rational actors who make learning-related choices and exert academic effort in accordance with their perceived long-term goals.  Habits — the virtues or the lack thereof — shape students' learning efforts more than does commitment to long-term goals:

As teachers, we often find ourselves scratching our heads wondering why many students simply refuse to engage the subject matter in our classes... Many of us teachers – I know I’ve done this many times – resort to advocating for our fields. We know that to learn critical thinking, you have to engage with the subject of the field, since it is the medium through which you teach the skill. So we assume that the core problem at hand is that students simply don’t see what is valuable about the field you are teaching. So, in my case, that would be philosophy (the core center of CT thinking, by the way!). For obvious reasons, it is clear that students won’t immediately get “why” philosophy matters at all. So in reaction to their responses to the field, we tend to try to convince them of why philosophy (or whatever field the teacher is teaching) matters....

It’s such a core message in academia with respect to “good teaching” that it goes unanalyzed. Other teachers and administrators repeatedly tell us that this is what we need to be doing a better job of it. One of the items we (at my school) are assessed by (in teaching evaluations) asks whether, as a result of the class, students are more or less positive about the field of study the course covered. So teaching evaluations in this case are trying to get at whether you’ve demonstrated the relevancy of the field.
It’s natural. We think that most of our students are majoring in business (or something immediately practical, I’ll just use business as an example) and so they can’t imagine what in the world philosophy, or art, or psychology, has to do with business. So our thinking is that we just need to show them how it fits, and if we can, then the magic transformation from bad or mediocre to good and hardworking will begin.

This book implicitly (they never come out and explicitly say it, as far as I remember) denies that this often used strategy is particularly efficacious. To analyze why, we first have to realize that the strategy rests on the belief that students — in their interaction with education — are rational actors acting with their long term goals as salient to them. In fact, the book repeatedly argues that our way of thinking of students as rational actors who are always thinking in the long term (basically trying to figure out whether working harder or less on X makes sense given long term goals) is not really accurate. Sure, the book shows, students may pick business over philosophy as a major for generally practical reasons (or because that’s what their cohort do, or because that’s what their parents tell them to do), but business students (for example) who are lazy and detached in philosophy classes are also lazy and detached in their business classes. So it’s not that they’ve figured out that “business matters” and in those courses they are fired up. Instead, the book implies that what determines a student’s level of engagement with X has little to do with how well the pursuit of X factors into rational assessments of their long-term advantage and goals.

So what does factor in as significant in the thinking of students? As the book suggests, short term advantage (immediate goals and interests)!  Things like “paying attention to this lecture is not as much fun as checking my Facebook account right now, so I’ll do the latter.” Or “I could read the assignment, but there’s a party going on, so I’ll do that instead.” This is not really the work of a rational actor but rather the work of very low level animalistic habits linked to more immediate gratification. This (Facebook, email, texting, drinking on the quad) is more fun and entertaining than that (studying, etc).
If that’s right, then all of our exhausting efforts at advocacy aren’t going to affect the very students who, in the studies in this book, perform the worst in CT.

... The answer brings us right back to where we started: habits. The fact that your Facebook account is more pleasure-inducing than paying attention in class isn’t a matter of rational actor deliberation about long term goals – it’s a matter of deeply ingrained habits. Habits, as any virtue ethicist will tell you, don’t just affect what you do – they affect how you see the world around you, and how it makes you feel. If you engage a class discussion as “boring” because your habits lead you to organize that situation in that way, it will clearly result in bad student behavior. If you have the already developed habit of not suffering from pain or boredom when you study, or from paying attention to the lecture, or from participating in the discussion, or from doing homework, well – those other distractions won’t really be problems that get in the way. You will see and feel the situation very differently, with very different behavioral results. How much sway will advocacy-minded argumentation on the part of the professor have here, if the wrong habits are already in place? If the book is right, not much. 

Very good stuff Chris!


  1. Michael -
    You're right, Chris makes an intelligent point re: habits. But while reading Chris's/your post, I wondered about HOW this habiting occurs. How does a student decide to commit to a habit of doing anything? I suppose my questions would consist of something like, "How do students decide which habits to foster and which to avoid? What are good habits for [anystudent]? What are counter-productive habits?"
    From the way I see things, when we seek the answers to these questions, we find ourselves arriving at something significantly bigger: motivation. Is it logical to assume that a student will develop a habit because they have identified a motivation/motivations? I believe so. In fact, I firmly believe that a student's (or anyone's - yours, mine, ...) diligence in asking him/herself simple yet profound questions like, "Why am I here?" and "What do I want?" require indulgence in dreaming ... dreaming about purpose - which seems to offer long-term goals (or at least ruminations about long-term goals) or, in other words, motivations. From these motivations, then, students can more easily decide on the habits that reflect, enhance, and - ultimately - realize - their larger-scale motivations.

    *As an aside, at the end of each semester, I've made a habit of writing my version of "The Last Lecture" (see To be brief, my last lectures serve two purposes: the primary purpose of the practice - the habit - of writing this type of reflection reminds me of "why I'm here" and "what I want". The secondary purpose is to tell a story about what motivation may look like; to use my/others' narratives as suggestions for how to model/channel our dreams into realities. I post all of my "last lectures" here (
    Again, thanks for sharing such an intelligent, insightful, and productive post.

  2. Michael -

    Thanks for the shout out. I was going to repost this one later after our book reading started, but if it works to get interest ginned up about the book, that's fine too. There are a number of related posts I can make later on concerning applications of these questions to curricula.


    A 'virtue ethics' of pedagogy would be an interesting topic (what are the habits, how do you get them, and so on). I'm sure someone has tackled it somewhere! In fact, the book above partially tackles the second question, and a little bit the first.

    I'm still thinking about the more radical consequences of this view. Clearly interesting students in subject matter is important. I don't want to deny that. At the same time, I am curious whether getting students interested in X or Y is really a matter of steerage. We steer students who already have basic foundational habits conductive to critical thinking towards one discipline or another. That helps us to fill our classes, but might not do much to augment critical thinking advances. For the student without such habits, such approaches don't even steer. They may, in the end, merely entertain.

    All in all, though, I'm still thinking about it. :)

  3. I completely disagree with Karen. By definition, habits are the things you do when you're not thinking about your actions. It is possible to (a) explicitly decide an objective and (b) form a habit which helps you meet that objective, but these are two different activities, and there is no reason to suppose that one will necessarily follow the other.
    Habits can be trained by external pressure, as Chris suggests, and in an educational setting, that has to be the best solution. Of course, any such training runs slightly counter to notions of independent thought (though on that subject, allow me to plug something my brother wrote: Against autonomy as an educational aim, but that's a tension that runs through education. Instructors in universities can't just duck the issue by saying, they're adults now, they have to be fully independent. Teachers at all levels have responsibility for learning practice as well as learning content.

  4. Sorry, just to forestall any misreadings, I'll insert a qualifier into that last sentence:
    "Teachers at all levels have *some* responsibility for learning practice as well as learning content."


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