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Language, the cultivation of imagination and the moral imagination, and consistently addressing the question: what (moral) life should I lead?
MacIntyre’s comments offer a persuasive entry to the character of social
relationships between children. Schools do create opportunities of different kinds in which social responsibility (seen as responsibility to others in a civil institution) provides for learning about one’s self: high school football teams, middle school choirs, and elementary school drama
productions. Schools sit uneasily at the borders between civil society and domains of life ordered by governance of the polity. When teach38
National Society for the Study of Education
ing was conceived as a task of in loco parentis, the implied partnership suggested mutually accepted goals. Due process has turned schools into arenas for litigation but also for control by government agencies that fail to enhance teacher autonomy to foster those freewheeling kinds of encounters mirroring life in civil society. The conclusion must be that, for children to develop a sense of themselves, not merely as stereotypical participants in school roles and rituals, the boundaries of curriculum and extra-curriculum need to be widened extensively.
It is essential, too, in matters of both tolerance and social responsibility
that teaching not be framed to ignore the malignant forces that are present in schools, bullying, gang membership, sexual harassment between children, let alone childhood narcissism (see Nussbaum, 2010, Chapters 1 & 2). All such obstacles have to be faced to become virtuous in one or more respects. Social responsibility goes beyond volunteering or collecting for the elderly into standing up for principles and people in distress. Francis Schrag (2010), in an intriguing article, suggests that moral education, and thereby democratic education, must confront the Badlands—the realities that children face, not the world as we wish it was.
CITIZENSHIP AND PRUDENCE
For philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1974), prudence describes how we go about attaining our desires and it is not therefore a moral principle. In contemporary life we tend to regard prudence as a quality possessed by financial advisers, an expropriation of an extraordinarily rich historical
concept to the banalities of financial management. These days, prudence might be regarded just as a matter of practical self-regarding wisdom, the kinds of “knowledge of how to be an effective citizen” that Ehrlich describes.
Prudence is the most neglected of all the virtues that can be fostered and developed in education, especially if we countenance the broad sweep of Aristotle’s account of phronesis, which, for my part, encapsulates qualities I regard as a description of prudence. An excellent contemporary
description by positive psychologists, manifestly influenced by contemporary neo-Aristotelians, is that prudence “maintains a balance and harmony among the person’s aims, aspirations, and plans. It should therefore play a mediating role in other strengths, for example, ensuring that hope is tempered by realism, that purpose is not too single-minded
and blind to the person’s other goals, and that self-regulation is not pursued in an overly harsh or constricting way” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 480). These authors suggest that prudent people are foresighted about their personal future and care about it, are able to resist self-defeating
impulses, control immediate gratification in favor of long-term
The Neglect of Virtue 39
ends, think reflectively, deliberately and practically, and stitch together their multiple goals and interests, framing them into a stable and coherent
life (p. 478). (They don’t procrastinate and “pull all-nighters.”) That articulates the educational task for the development of prudence.
In the development of themselves through schooling, students need to be aware of the obstacles to their flourishing as human beings that fantasia,
inertia, and amnesia present, and to see them as weaknesses to be continuously addressed. Students will thus develop through schooling a strong sense of themselves, of who they are, for which they need to be open-minded, impartial, and accurate in their intellectual life. Further
they need to develop tolerance, social responsibility, and prudence through understanding their personal identity set within their social identity as citizens and as members of a rich civil society. Teaching demands
intensive pedagogical attention to individuals, not a shuffling off of responsibility to counselors. Nor is this just a philosophical matter. Positive psychologists (see Peterson and Seligman, 2004) have a wealth of understanding of character strengths and virtues that seem to be utterly neglected by educational policy-makers, administrators and teachers alike. A remedy for this disastrous neglect of virtue will demand radical changes in how education is delivered.
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HUGH SOCKETT is professor of education in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University. He was Dean of Education at the University of East Anglia before coming to Mason where he directed the Institute for Educational Transformation for seven years. He has published widely on the central place of the moral in teaching as an activity, notably in his recent book Knowledge and Virtue in Teaching and Learning: The Primacy of Dispositions.
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