Recognizing and cultivating “Mental Virtues” in children….

“First, there is love of learning. Some people are just more ardently curious than others, either by cultivation or by nature.”— “The Mental Virtues”; David Brooks NY Times 8/29/2014
As educators, we must admit that there is an “X” factor when it comes to the presence of extraordinary “mental virtues” in students. It’s not that we don’t know it when we see it; rather the question is, to what degree, and in what degrees, does it arrive to the school with the child? What causes some students to be more gifted than others in these qualities and practices? And what is our capacity to cultivate these mental virtues in any individual student? Are we stimulating and nurturing virtuous qualities that are “naturally” already present in the student? Can we teach the habits and practices of good virtues, like compassion and intellectual inquisitiveness to the unwilling, or even better, to the disinterested? For the virtuous quality of resilience; It is still a mystery to me as to why some students do so well academically, with so little material resources and so many “external social and familial hurdles”; and why on the other hand some students do so poorly with so much material resources and a great deal of social /home support. This essay is worth reading as a starting point, if for no other reason, it reminds us that habits and practices of “Mental virtues”, are just as important as any content or skill area we insist is important in a school’s curriculum. And yet it is very often the most difficult to capture and deliver as a learning objective. We know from a brief survey of US and world history that virtue-less (virtue free?) knowledge and technical skill can inflect a great deal of hurt and harm on the planet and its inhabitants. We as a society (and as a society of K-12 and college educators) have unfortunately delegated a “good character” to a lower state of achievement and recognition. The only objective is to climb the “career ladder”, by mimicking successful leadership tricks, techniques and strategies; it is only: “how to beat out the competition (by any means), and make the most money”; not how to serve humanity through a calling; or just being a good person, who is a force for good in the world. Schools (despite what we think) are never disconnected from the cultural imperatives and interest of a society. The quality of social-psychological life in Japan will deteriorate badly; as their schools have perfected the art of manufacturing a docile and solely focused on the “job”, ant-like work force. But if educational philosophers like Paulo Freire are to be believed; we can still knowingly “push back” against society’s desire that we just produce individualistic, ethically weak, selfish, docile, and moral-free willing workers. We can start by establishing what is important, in our home, our classrooms and our schools. I have always been a strong advocate of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Despite that professional interest I (often to the surprise of many) have also been a strong supporter and advocate for students reading and studying both fiction and non-fiction literature, creative writing and speaking, drama, the visual arts, music and dance. The creative arts will cause one to think about the world, and ones place in it, in a way that is inaccessible through the study of STEM; and interestingly, the study of the creative arts will actually enhance (as many schools of engineering are now finding out) and expand a STEM practice, while encouraging inventive and innovative thinking. Finally, I think we need to invite the student’s spiritual (not religious) intelligence into the classroom, because I believe there we will find the source and resource for the teaching of mental virtues.
“Mental Virtues”-