Student Virtues and Vices

1. Student Virtues

Augustine described education as essentially teaching students to “love that which is lovely,” following on Plato’s idea that affections and taste must be cultivated. The classical and Christian traditions have emphasized that it is critical to model for students the love for the true, good, and beautiful, and by various means to cultivate and stir up a love for them. C.S. Lewis makes this case persuasively in his little book The Abolition of Man. He tells us that we need to cultivate not only minds but also chests (the visceral, affective part of us), especially since presently our modern schools neglect the cultivation of affections, rendering us as “men without chests.” He comments that modern students are not so much “jungles to be cut” as “deserts that need to be irrigated.”

Even the word “student” suggests this. The word “student” is derived from the Latin word studium which mean, “zeal,” “fondness,” and “affection.” Thus, etymologically considered, a student is someone who is zealous and eager for truth, goodness, and beauty—that is, for knowledge. Is it not true that there are many students who are not really students? Until we have a child before us who is seeking and zealous for knowledge, we really don’t have a student before us; instead we have someone who we must force to do academic work, usually by means of the carrot and the stick. Such a “student” will be generally uncooperative and resistant (even if passively so), and will quickly forget what he is forced to “learn.” Teaching such “students” is no fun at all. By contrast, once a child becomes eager to learn, to know, is in fact “in love” with math, history, language or logic—then teaching is a joy.

Great teachers know instinctively that they must cultivate this studium, this zeal, in their students. Naturally, parents play the most vital role in this development, and in education a partnership between parents and teachers is required for true success. So what are the key student virtues that we need to cultivate in our children? What are the corresponding vices that they must overcome?

Virtues

  • Love: Love is a master virtue that fuels and empowers the other student virtues and leads to them. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13 that even if we speak in the tongues of angels (high linguistic achievement!) and fathom all mysteries (surpassing the learning of a genius) but have not love, our achievement will be worth nothing. Students are called by God (and thus should be called by us) to “love the lovely” and to glory in God Himself and His revealed mind in nature, Scripture and ourselves. Knowing of God’s goodness in the world, and his goodness toward us, we can live out of love and gratitude in all we do, including in our studies and our pursuit of the True, Good, and Beautiful in all of our academic work. We can always say to our students therefore, “Choose joy.”
  • Humility: Humility is another master virtue that leads to other virtues. We cultivate humility by taking students to the heights, showing them greatness. In the presence of greatness, students become conscious of their own slender resources and will not take on anything beyond their power, but instead learn to rejoice what is given them in their measure. Humility will also lead to gratitude—gratitude even for those friends whose gifts and capacities surpass our own. Sertillanges writes, “In face of other’s superiority, there is only one honorable attitude, to be glad of it, and then it becomes our own joy, our own good fortune.”
  • Patience: Patience involves bearing difficulties well, enduring the hardship and “suffering” that does come occasionally (and sometimes regularly) as part of learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge.
  • Constancy: Students who exhibit constancy keep steading at task, remaining focused and diligent. This virtue enables students push away even “good” distractions that would inhibit learning and mastery.
  • Perseverance: Perseverance is similar to constancy, but this virtue requires a willful spirit to do what must be done, and even to love what must be done (reminding us that love is a master virtue). Students will be motivated and inspired to persevere by the vision of mastery, capacity, and wisdom that teachers lay before their eyes. Small wins and slowly increasing capacity will also kindle perseverance, constancy, and patience.
  • Temperance/Studiousness: Students need to avoid excessive negligence (laziness) and excessive curiosity and ambition (vain ambition and overreach). To master an art, students must walk the wise, proven path, starting at the beginning and mastering each step. To leap ahead (even when they can to some degree) does damage to the necessary discipline of mastering an art. Sertillanges says, “if you want to see things grow big, plant small,” and go to the sea by way of the streams and rivers—it is folly to go jump in the sea. Recall as well the tortoise and the hare. Students also must balance or temper their studies with other academic work and with their other responsibilities and human being (good exercise, prayer, worship, family living and contributions, etc.).

Vices

  • Pride: Pride drives students to love their opinion and thoughts such that they cannot learn from others or discern the broader wisdom from other minds that would inform them.
  • Envy: Envy agitates the mind by refusing to honor the gifts and capacities of others; it hinders students from learning from other honorable and able students.
  • Sloth/Laziness: This is where the good gifts and capacities of students go to die.
  • Sensuality: Indulgence in sensuality (not only of the sexual variety) creates lethargy, befogs the imagination, dulls the intelligence, and scatters the memory; sensuality distracts from learning.
  • Irritation/Impatience: Irritation and impatience repels exhortation, direction, and constructive criticism and thus deters students from mastery and leads them to increased error.
  • Excessive Ambition (a form of intemperance): Excessive ambition leads students to leap ahead of their capacity without true mastery and integration (often out of pride), which ultimately slows down learning and leads to patchy, non-integrated understanding.

All of these vices compromise a student’s ability to attend, to judge/assess and therefore to truly know. All of these vices also tend to come together and lead to one another—they are interconnected.

These virtues are not so much taught as they are cultivated and modeled. We should make students aware of these virtues and we should in fact occasionally teach them directly. However, it is very important that students begin to hunger for these virtues themselves and cry out to God for them. This seems to be the point of Proverbs 2—if a student won’t cry aloud for wisdom and seek it as hidden treasure, he won’t ever get it. Therefore (among other things we do), we must exhort our students to ask God for virtue and wisdom—a prayer he delights to answer (James 1).

From Student-Parent Handbook, Schole Academy

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