The Aims of Higher Education: A New Take on Intellectual Virtues; Encouraging Tenacious Philosophers

I’m part of a graduate student teaching group here and last week we read and discussed a fantastic paper by Kyla Ebels-Duggan called Autonomy as Intellectual Virtue. Not only was it incredibly well written (in terms of clarity, organization, and style), but more importantly, I found its message to be very profound and forceful. Indeed, it’s changed my own views about how I ought to approach philosophy. Ebels-Duggan’s paper can be found in full in the book The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice (ed. Brighouse and McPherson), but I’ll summarize it here:

The standard view is that higher education is valuable because it exposes students to a wide variety of opinions and teaches them to think critically about them – something that would not otherwise happen. That is, students tend to hold on to the ideas they’ve been raised with without stopping to question them and consider alternatives, and higher education gives them the opportunity to do so. Thus, students become autonomous in the sense that they gain the ability to make an educated choice about which opinions/theories/worldviews to adopt for themselves.

Ebels-Duggan questions whether this is really an accurate picture. Rarely has she found students unreflectively clinging to whatever worldview they were raised with. Rather, she often sees the very opposite problem: “overconfidence in critical stance…paired with a professed lack of positive convictions about normative matters.” In other words, students are often quick to find fault in the different theories they are exposed to rather than approaching them with the mindset that they actually matter or have any real value. Criticizing every new idea naturally goes hand-in-hand with an unwillingness to commit to any of them, and so what we see are students who criticize everything and stand by nothing; the value in what they are learning goes unrecognized. This, Ebels-Duggans believes, is the real problem.

She then prescribes a new approach to teaching to counter the two vices outlined above: an overly-critical stance and a lack of positive conviction. Against the first, she emphasizes the virtues of charity (approaching new ideas “with the presumption that there is something true and worthwhile to be found there”) and humility (“recognizing the genuine difficulty of serious intellectual tasks”). So, rather than immediately criticize, the charitable and humble student will acknowledge that easy answers are near-impossible to find, and will thus try to find to interpret the theories they learn in the best way possible. To combat the second vice, Ebels-Duggans says we should aim to foster the virtue of tenacity. In her words, “Intellectually tenacious people…do not easily abandon [their views]. They are not likely to fall prey to the idea that they are entitled only to those views that they can fully defend against skeptics…[They display] some willingness to tolerate tension.”

She concludes her paper with two points:

First, that rather than treating all theories equally and expecting students to choose among them using their learned critical thinking skills, we should instead help students to discern which theories deserve to be taken seriously – especially in conjunction with the virtue of charity, for we would not want them to internalize the wrong sorts of ideas.

And finally, that all of this amounts to an incredibly difficult and delicate task for us teachers, and perhaps the best we can do is to simply be conscious of these challenges and act as models for our students.

I really do recommend reading the paper in its entirety. My short summary captures only a fraction of the ingenuity, insight, and force that Ebels-Duggan has managed to portray.

• • •

I think the the part that had the biggest effect on me was Ebels-Duggan’s discussion on tenacity.

Oftentimes philosophers will hesitate to commit to or align themselves with any given view, and instead say something like “I’m sympathetic to the idea of…” to play it safe. And as an undergrad I had a friend who would constantly ask for justification of every little claim as though it was wrong of me to hold views I couldn’t rigorously justify down to their core. Such an impossible standard lead her to commit to nothing herself (we referred to this and the aforementioned phenomena as “hedging”) and she completely lacked the sort of tenacity Ebels-Duggan describes here. I even recently witnessed a (different) friend concede that, because she couldn’t give a complete account of where morality gains its authority on a meta-ethical level, moral prescriptions on the applied level had no “legitimate” force behind them – even though, knowing her personally, her actions and views on social justice completely contradict this.

I was led to believe that these sorts of behaviors – hedging, conceding the weaker position, etc. – were marks of epistemic responsibility; i.e., it was just good epistemic practice to abide by such high standards. And don’t get me wrong – to an extent, it is, but definitely not to the lengths we’re pushing it.

I am convinced that we need to put more emphasis on encouraging tenacity in our students. Indeed, it is something I need to work on for myself.


This will be the first post filed under the “Academia” category of my blog.

Posts in this category can broadly be described as insight I’ve gained into the workings of academia, professional philosophy, education, or related topics.

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