Intellectual Virtue: The Contributions of Newberry Award Winning Books, 2000-2010.

Author:Rice, Suzanne

In 1988, John Michael Atherton observed: "The virtues have fallen out of favor in curricular theory on and practice in moral education" (Atherton, 1988, p. 299.) Over the past quarter century, however, there has been a dramatic change in how virtue is regarded. Education writers and philosophers, social commentators and politicians, have all helped to create a vast, new literature on virtue and the related concept "character." Further, an historical mission of schools--to promote the development of "good character" among youth--has been restored, at least in theory, through legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates character education.

Today, "character" is strongly associated with what are regarded as distinctly moral virtues. Often overlooked is the fact that Aristotle was concerned with the development of both moral and intellectual virtues. This is a serious oversight, both conceptually and practically. Conceptually, for Aristotle and the ancient Greeks more broadly, there was not a bright dividing line between moral and non- or a-moral phenomena; moral and intellectual virtues inform one another to influence all sorts of conduct, some of which we moderns would regard as belonging to the "moral" sphere and some not. And practically, human flourishing--the raison d'etre for virtues--requires both qualities. The central aim of this essay is to illuminate some of the contributions of Newbery Award winning books published from 2000 through 2010 to the development of intellectual virtue.

The Newbery Award is named for the 18th-century English bookseller and author John Newbery, who is widely regarded as the father of children's literature. Frederic G. Melcher, an editor of Publisher's Weekly, proposed creating the award in 1921 at a meeting of the American Library Association, and the first award was given the following year to The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. The Newbery Award honors outstanding contributions to American children's literature.

The Newbery books expose readers and listeners to particular virtues and to the characters who possess them. Admittedly, there is no assurance that children will take up the intellectual traits to which they are exposed--just as there is no assurance that they will take up math or science concepts. Yet we believe that it is worth considering what intellectual virtues these books make available to students.

That we focus on virtues presented in literature reflects a particular theory of character development. We hold with Aristotle and contemporary writers in his tradition that if virtues are acquired at all, this will be more the result of engagement in a form of life and examples of excellence than as a result of purely didactic instruction. Literature is filled with such examples of excellence, moral and intellectual. These are works with memorable characters whose virtues and vices play out on the page, affording readers, among other things, opportunities to contemplate the workings and consequences of such character traits as honesty and deceitfulness, kindness and cruelty, and generosity and stinginess. Of the literature available for consideration, we focus on Newbery books because of their popularity with teachers and librarians. The Newbery Award itself provides something of a "seal of approval." In addition, the award winning books generate numerous materials--discussion guides, lesson plans, and the like--that appeal to busy educators. For these reasons there is a good likelihood that relatively large numbers of students will actually encounter Newbery Award winning books.

The Idea of Virtue

The Nicomachean Ethics is thought to provide Aristotle's most comprehensive account of a range of issues connected with virtue: the role of virtues in promoting a well-lived life; how virtues are acquired and developed; and the conditions necessary to sustain the practice of virtues over time. Aristotle begins his inquiry into virtue with a question about the ultimate good for human beings, which he concludes is eudaimonia, usually translated as "happiness" but perhaps more helpfully described as thriving, flourishing, or well-being. Other goods are pursued as means to well-being, but well-being itself is the ultimate good for humans. In Aristotle's account, achieving overall well-being requires virtues, but virtues are not merely a means to this end; virtues and well-being are inextricably linked (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 149).

Virtues are those attributes that, other things being equal, enable people who possess them to cope relatively better with life's constant and varied demands: living among others, managing one's body in sickness and health, and making a living, to name a few. A person who has developed the virtue "empathy," for instance, will be better able to "read" others and to share (to a degree) their feelings; this typically enables the empathizer to interact more decently and effectively across a range of social situations than would be the case in the absence of empathy.

The virtue tradition can be distinguished from other orientations in that it provides no universal rules or principles and is instead highly responsive to the particular features of actual real-life situations. Aristotle describes this context-sensitivity of virtues--and the challenge of exercising virtue--thusly:

So ... giving and spending money is easy and anyone can do it; but doing it to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, for the right end, and in the right way is no longer easy, nor can everyone do it. Hence [doing these things] well is rare, praiseworthy and fine. (1109a25-30) Over time, many people find themselves in numerous situations that call for generosity, and there is no rule that could provide guidance in all such situations. A person whose character is truly generous may well find himself or herself acting quite differently in each of these situations--volunteering time here, giving a cash donation there, providing extensive help in one case and relatively little in another, and so on.

For humans, life is filled with choices, and to a large extent well-being is bound up with the choices we make. It might be said that virtue in general is the habit of good choice-making. Certainly, our choices have instrumental value. But beyond that, choices both reflect and shape who we are as persons. This is most evident over a long time span, where the effects of many individual choices become indelible in the form of a character.

Intellectual and Moral Virtues

In recent years, especially in the education literature and in character education programs, moral virtue has received the lion's share of attention (Nash, 1997, pp. 1-15). Yet Aristotle identified two kinds of virtue, one pertaining to intellect and the other to character:

Virtue, then, is of two sorts, virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching, and hence needs experience and time. (1103a12-15) Intelligence, as understood by Aristotle, is a quality that involves reason and enables humans to grasp the truth; it is "concerned with action about what is good or bad for a human being" (1140b5).

There is a danger that lists of intellectual (or moral) virtues can trivialize the very idea of virtue, slurring over what is most important while emphasizing mere words. (As an example, think of what often passes for "caring" these days.) Yet when they are well-conceptualized, these lists condense ideas that would otherwise be unwieldy. Zagzebski provides one such helpful list of traits widely regarded as intellectual virtues:

The ability to recognize the salient facts; sensitivity to detail.

Open-mindedness in collecting and appraising evidence.

Fairness in evaluating the arguments of others.

Intellectual humility.

Intellectual perseverance, diligence, care, and thoroughness.

Adaptability of intellect.

The detective's virtues: thinking of coherent explanations of the facts.

Being able to recognize reliable authority.

Insight into persons, problems, theories.

The teaching virtues: the social virtues of being communicative, including intellectual candor and knowing your audience and how they respond. (Zagzebski, 1996, p. 114)

One is less likely to succumb to the laundry-list problem by remembering that, like all virtues, those connected with intellect are enacted differently depending on the particulars of the situation at hand. Indeed, intellectual maturity is characterized in part by the ability to adjust one's thinking to diverse and novel...

To continue reading