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The new core curriculum at New College of Florida, where I am employed, consists of two components, logos and techne. The logos component “requires students to study great canonical works,” encompassing the arts, humanities, religion, and education—subjects that set students on the path to becoming conscientious citizens, discerning consumers, and faithful souls. The ideas of Plato and Kant, the parables of Jesus, the poems of Keats, Shakespeare’s plays, Mozart’s music, are all building blocks of a virtuous life. But when I talk to students about virtue itself, I usually add a note of qualification: Virtue is not acquired by study alone. Books alone are not enough. The acquisition of virtue takes labor, something that higher education seems to have forgotten. 

Aristotle professed that, to be virtuous, one needed to work at it. Reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics introduces youths to ideas of virtue; putting ideas into practice completes the formation. It is only through practical application that one can acquire prudence—in other words, the ability to discern how to act best in any given situation. 

Furthermore, for the ancients, virtue itself was not necessarily the ultimate end but a means toward a higher goal. In the Greek understanding, all enlightened, that is, virtuous, individuals strove for eudaimonia—true fulfillment or flourishing—which was considered the highest good. Eudaimonia might deliver happiness, but the two states were not understood as identical. While happiness—or rather, pleasure—can arise in a values vacuum, eudaimonia was achievable only within an ethical framework dividing right from wrong, elevated from debased, beautiful from ugly.

Sadly, higher education no longer incentivizes students to practice virtue, ultimately failing our citizenry and democratic republic. For instance, many universities have dropped honor codes, which encouraged self-discipline and were long seen as central to the formation of good citizens. Today, they are regarded as quaint, archaic objects of a bygone era. Schools have instead replaced the honor system with political correctness and “safe spaces” where ideas are regulated. And the appearance of virtue, as seen from the phenomenon of virtue-signaling, is prized above true virtue. 

The classical education movement rightly underscores virtue in its mission. The Circe Institute, for instance, places the phrase “Cultivating Wisdom & Virtue” right under its name on the website. But I would caution classical educators as I do college students that a “cloistered virtue,” as Milton called it, is not sufficient. As New College and other like-minded educators push to restore the classics to their proper place, let us not forget that the Great Books ought not only to be read but lived. Without concrete activities and campus policies that encourage morality and virtuous conduct, the Great Books are just great stories. 

There are certain measures that colleges and universities can take to promote virtue. Including or adding virtue in mottos and mission statements is a first step. Reinstating honor codes is a tangible reminder. At Washington and Lee University, for instance, breaches of the community’s trust are considered violations of the honor code and sent through a judicial process. Students themselves hear the case, make a judgment, and assign punishment to the guilty. Colleges can also invite speakers who exemplify and promote virtue, such as Peter Kreeft, author of Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion

Finally, schools can encourage competitive sports, especially team sports, which help young people understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves and that arduous practice enhances performance. Sports also motivate participants to hone the body and promote fair play, self-discipline, and perseverance. These simple actions are a good place to start. 

If we are to restore virtue in our culture, higher education must demand more of itself and its students. Students deserve more opportunities to grow into virtuous citizens and unleash their full potential. Their future, and the future of our country, depends on it.   

David Rancourt is a PhD candidate at the University of Bucharest.

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Image by Alaska Millerlicensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.  

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