Q: WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO CULTIVATE VIRTUE IN A SCHOOL SETTING?
A: The more virtuous that the adults are, the more opportunity that students have to sit at the feet of someone who is modeling virtue. This way, the students have the opportunity to learn by
mimesis—to imitate what they’re seeing.
Secondly, if the adults are observant of the students’ interactions both in the classroom and without, they will have a good sense of what questions should be asked to get students to think about what they’re doing and why. Then, teachers can prompt students and spur on the growth of virtue. Or, they can at least invite students to consider being virtuous in the future by engaging them Socratically and lovingly to consider their own actions and to be inspired towards future possibilities of virtue.
We also have to habituate students through exhortation and boundaries to develop a life that’s ordered and controlled, ultimately by themselves—preparing them for the Aristotelian progression into a virtuous life.
Q: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CULTURAL FEATURES THAT WE MIGHT BE LOOKING FOR IN A VIRTUE-FOCUSED SCHOOL?
A: The first thing is what words are being chosen. Do we use the word virtue as opposed to values, or something else? Another particular thing that you would look for would be how teachers are interacting with their students. If we are trying to force our student to choose the good, to think rightly on all things, we can fall off the horse on the other side, trying to control the outcome of the educational process and not allowing students to make mistakes.
The real project is a very wild and exciting one in which we don’t know what the outcome’s going to be. We’re continually inviting students and other faculty, whoever we’re working with, to pursue virtue, finding them further and further on this journey of becoming more fully who they’re meant to be or capable of becoming, and we’ll see what they choose to do.
Q: HOW DOES A CLASSICAL SCHOOL, A SCHOOL FOCUSED ON VIRTUE, DIFFER IN ITS APPROACH TO SO CALLED BEHAVIOR MANAGEMENT?
A: There’s great difficulty in both setting the policy of, “This is how we do things,” and setting the ideal of, “This is the spirit in which we do things. This is the motivation out of which we operate,” for which you cannot make a policy. This is where we see the wisdom of having structure in place, because when intentional structures are in place, they buttress our own hearts and minds as we walk into the building.
A school that’s pursuing virtue is going to have an eye towards excellence in behavior. There are the boundaries and the minimum standards, but there’s also the aspiration to what that allows, what is beyond that in terms of excellence. You’re not punished for falling short of that, but we’re always reaching towards that. And the more folks we have on the faculty that are thinking that
way for themselves and for others and who are fascinated by that—who are not just intellectually aware of it, but who also have a delight and a piety towards this whole project—the more virtue developing there’s going to be in that school.
Q: HOW DO WE GO ABOUT ENCOURAGING OR DEVELOPING OWNERSHIP ON THE PART OF STUDENTS?
A: In the visual arts, for instance, a great course will focus on three things. First, learning from the masters by looking at what they produced. Then, the study of theory and learning how the masters applied their craft to what they created. Then, a student must practice: do it yourself. It’s a great analogy for students becoming virtuous, first by selecting the curriculum, so that students see magnificence. Second, students learn to identify how virtue is practiced. Finally, students come to understand what is good or what falls short of the good and virtuous in a given situation.
In school, there has to be space for students to act and behave for themselves, where their behavior is not scripted. The high art of school leadership and teaching is to know which boundaries to set up and how to help the students choose to stay within those boundaries—and be inventive within the rules. The mark of a great artist is to innovate, create, and be imaginative within the rules of the system.
Also, you must praise what you prize—and praise it precisely. So, if you want students to speak kindly to each other, you can drop the hammer when they don’t. But, it’s better to be looking for those moments when somebody does the thing right, and then be precise in your praise. Don’t say, “Wow, Johnny, you’re such a great kid… Great job.” That’s sloppy praise. Rather say, “Johnny, I saw that when that student had tripped and dropped his books, and when you went over, you didn’t just help him pick them up, but you also said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. It’s okay,’ and that meant so much to him. I thought that was a really gracious and thoughtful thing for you to say to him in that moment.” That’s precise praise—because it’s true.
David Denton currently serves as the executive director of Great Hearts North Texas. He has been a classical educator and school leader for two decades and advises the Institute for Classical Education regarding the APEX leadership program.