Through Stained Glass

Values, Virtues and Vocations

Over the last couple of years, I have taken to asking students in their graduating year a different kind of question about their future. Instead of the usual “What are you going to be?” I have taken to asking “Who would you like to become?” This past month, I have applied this question to a small group that has been meeting weekly in the Chapel. Using activities, readings and discussion, we have been reflecting on who we are and what our place in the world is, and attempting to tie that in to the aims and goals of a university education. I have called this exploration “Values, Virtues and Vocations,” as a way of challenging ourselves to think about what our essential character is and how we try to live that out in the world.

This is not new, of course. The tradition of liberal education is that of nurturing a sense of virtue or morality, one might say. Most academics would agree that the liberal arts still hold an important place, and we might also agree that the humanities still serve a need; however, the present crisis in the humanities signalled by a significant drop in enrolment across North America has revealed the need for a better defence of the unique goals and value of this course of study. Pleading for the development of critical thinking skills, problem solving and communication is not sufficient.

One of the interesting ways that people have responded to this challenge is by returning to an older tradition, arguing that the humanities nurture a sense of values and virtues. While there is no agreement about what should be studied or how it should be approached, there is developing and tentative agreement in some circles that the liberal arts can and should continue to nurture our virtues. Andrew Delbanco, writing in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), argues that the study of the humanities encourages imagination and nurtures the empathy needed for moral development. Anthony Kronman, in his work Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2008) avers that a liberal education helps students discern and take responsibility for their moral obligations. Mark Roche notes in Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture (2017) that the liberal arts develop the virtues of attentiveness and courage.

If the liberal arts nurture virtues, which virtues should we pay attention to? With acknowledgement to the biblical book of Proverbs (“Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars”; Proverbs 9:1), I suggest the following seven pillars of wisdom that should direct the university, the house of learning:

Diligence: For me, this connotes persistence and commitment. Learning should be tough, even evoke a little agony, in the same way that physical exercise should make us break a sweat.

Courage: The willingness to take a risk, to ask the hard questions and follow the answers wherever they lead. It means the courage to abandon an idea when it no longer works, as well as to adopt a new one as needed.

Hope: It is easy to confuse an attitude of world-weariness or facile cynicism with true critical reflection. Perhaps critical reflection should not make us despair of our world, but inspire us to find what is good, and lead us to action to make things better.

Compassion: Protestant theologian John Calvin suggested that God could have created us as self-sufficient individuals, living unto ourselves. It was the poet John Donne who reminds us that we are not islands, sufficient unto ourselves. Kindness, the living out of compassion and empathy, is the way in which we respond to the needs of others and live more fully in the global village.

Humility: To be humble is to see oneself more truly in the larger world with its diversity of peoples, cultures, ideas, experiences – and to be open to them all.

Creativity: Usually understood as the preserve of the arts, creativity needs to be part of all disciplines of study, looking beyond the status quo, allowing our minds and ideas to reach across the full range of possibilities and opportunities. Creativity allows us to see the world not just as it is, but as it can be, and to work towards that end.

Discernment: Simply put, making right choices when the world offers temptations and seductions and pressures to those options and courses of action that do not benefit us or others.

Wisdom means, in effect, understanding how to live well in the world, so that we leave it better than we find it. This would be a noble aspiration for any university, including the one I see, as I look out through stained glass.

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