Intellectual Virtues and Graduate Attributes

What intellectual habits do universities promote? We train students to become experts in various subjects, to earn the intellectual autonomy we earned in our time.

Is it an over-reach to say that we train students in intellectual virtues?

Virtue’s a loaded term, loaded with blustery moral overtones. I use it in the sense that David Brooks gives it. He takes it (from a 2007 book) to mean an impassioned curiosity and openness to new knowledge, tempered by the intellectual courage of your convictions: a steadiness of principle, unswayed by the whims of fashion, tempered by a humility that recognizes the value of new information. (I’m paraphrasing.) He also describes the virtues of autonomy and generosity.

Brooks has explored this territory before, in his public talks and his columns for the New York Times, in his measured interventions on the PBS Newshour, in his 2011 book The Social Animal. Each time he shows a willingness to think about the habits that should inform our intellectual lives, and about how we are socialized to behave and think as we do.

I’m thinking about all of this because my faculty is starting a conversation, now, about graduate attributes – or the skills and knowledge that all our graduates should have on graduation. I’m thinking about our ambitions for students beyond a good education, to their intellectual sensibility and conduct.

If a university program is a kind of socialization, then our graduate attributes should account for intellectual virtues like Brooks identifies.

Our graduates earn possessions, skills and knowledge — but also self-possession, convictions and curiosity. Those virtues are hard to pin down, and harder to mandate, but they’re key to understanding our purpose.

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