Apr 30, 2012

Cultivating Virtues: Snapshots of Students

One of the shorter assignments my students tackled this semester required them to carry out some reflection on virtues and vices in their own lives and characters, aided by study of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics (as well as many other discussions of virtue, vice, and dispositions earlier in the semester), building on some of our in-class lectures and discussions (for example, this one, this one, and this one).  I asked them to consider three questions:

  • Which of the virtues which Aristotle discusses do you think you most fully possess?  Explain why Aristotle would say you do possess that virtue.  
  • Which of the virtues Aristotle discusses do you think you most need to work on at the present time?  Why?
  • Do you fit the descriptions of any of the vices?  Which ones? 
As I read through the responses of 41 students, I started to see some interesting patterns developing, and I was struck by the self-disclosure, reflective insight, and honest appraisals many of the students put down on paper.

My current cohort of students are willing to reveal intensely personal feelings, experiences, even failings, and to articulate these within frameworks of  moral philosophy.  I'll share a few particularly interesting passages selected from those papers below, but first, I'd like to give some idea of which virtues -- they tended to focus more on virtues they feel themselves in need of cultivating than on diagnosing vices -- they saw as areas of their own strengths, and which they regarded as areas of underdevelopment, weakness, even inattentiveness.

Which Virtues Did they Think Most Critical?

By far the virtue which my students most tended to assess themselves as having developed was courage -- nearly half of them.  Interestingly, quite a few who viewed themselves as courageous, and provided examples, also saw good temper, mildness, or patience, the virtue associated with anger in Aristotle's treatment, as one of their weak points.  Relatively few students thought that courage was one of their actual weak points.

The virtue that came in second -- a little over a quarter of the students -- was liberality or generosity.  Close to an equal number of students saw generosity as a virtue they needed to develop.

After that, the numbers of students identifying specific virtues as their own begin decline, the virtuous disposition of good temper coming in a distant third, followed by friendliness, truthfulness (about oneself), magnanimity, and temperance or moderation. 

In fact, moderation or temperance was the virtue students identified as their greatest need.  Half of the students wrote about it, most of them viewing themselves as self-indulgent rather than as on the other extreme of having too little desire, enjoying physical pleasures too little.  Good temper was the second -- more than a quarter of the students admitting to various problems with anger -- and a lack of generosity was the third -- just under a quarter of the students -- some of them falling on the side of being spendthrift, others on the side of stinginess.

Examples of Student Views

The examples and analyses were very interesting -- I have to admit feeling a sense of pride in my students, and not just on this occasion -- and I've excerpted from a few of them here, both to provide a few examples of their thinking and also to display a bit of their variety.  Courage takes multiple forms and is called for in very different kinds of situations, as these three examples show:
I remember a situation when I had to fight off bullies in order to protect my younger sibling. Despite the bullies being substantially bigger than me, I faced my fears in order to protect my brothers. I knew had no chance of winning but I was confident that my resistance will prevent future abuse from the bullies
I think I can relate to this more than the others virtues because I think I am person that is not afraid to be the first to do something. For example I do not mind speaking up in class when the other students feel embarrassed to talk. I will participate and put in my opinion when most other students would rather sit in class and not say anything.
I show an enormous amount of courage on the lacrosse field with my teammates. . . I show a great amount of confidence when going against a defender and I constantly prove to my team that I am reliable when I have the ball and I am able to get the job done on the field. . . .  I am willing to get injured.  I think Aristotle would say I possess courage because it involves confidence when facing a fear of yours especially when you are on the battlefield or on the playing field. Also when you are going against a tough competitor and you are showing no fear, you show confidence in yourself that you can hold your own ground and get the job even if it means getting a bit injured
Other students explored their fears in detail, narrating how they exhibited courage precisely by reference to functioning, struggling, sticking to what they had to, in the face of those fears
Something that hits me personally that deals with fear is failure. Failure is the expectations of one that are not met, and can be visible economically, academically, athletically and socially. . . . .  Academically is one that fits in with my life right now, as the failure of not doing well in class can sometimes keep me from sleeping. This also deals with having to live up to the expectations of my family who have seen me thrive my whole academic career and do not accept below average grades and determination.

 I was terrified to go to college. . . I can’t really even describe how miserable I was freshman year, it was bad. But, I made it. I didn’t leave Marist, I didn’t fail my classes, and I did eventually put myself out there and make friends. I have never once let my fears stop me from achieving something and I take pride in that. . . . . I have felt extremely vulnerable and even angry at myself for being the way I am but I’ve learned to accept who I am and to move past it. To have an internal struggle like that it takes courage to admit to yourself that you are who you are and there is no changing that. It also takes courage to not give in or give up.

Temperance and Temptation

The student responses and reflections reveal why temperance or moderation is felt to be such a weak point.  College is a locus and lifestyle of many temptations.
 Marist has a young and wild culture that’s as exiting as it is dangerous. Many tell me I won’t experience anything to the likes of it upon my entrance in to the real world. This only increases my vice of self-indulgence because it makes me feel like I have a limited window of time. It is time to start mapping my path back to the mean of pleasure/pain
Desires and pleasures associated with eating and drinking are two particularly common concerns.
Being a college student, it’s hard not to be self-indulgent. It’s easy to overeat and to drink too often, because that is what everyone around you is doing. For example, as an athlete here at Marist, I know that it is important for me to eat healthy foods and not to indulge in too much junk food. But when I’m hungry, I don’t reach for some fruit or vegetables, I eat junk food. I know I shouldn’t be eating at places at McDonalds, but when all my friends are stopping to eat there, I usually get something too, even though I know I shouldn’t and I know it will make me feel lousy the next day at practice

One may not even be considered overweight by societal terms however they may still over indulge in various foods. I know this is the case with me. Thankfully I have not begun to gain weight despite the various terrible foods I consume. I constantly tell myself that I am going to stop eating fast food. I argue with myself that it is bad for me and I will be saving money by making my own healthier foods. This argument goes out the window however, when over the summer, after work I am tempted with a quick meal.

I would say I’m an addictive personality because when I try something I like, I get as much of it as I can. Thankfully, I’m aware of this and I haven’t experimented with any hardcore drugs. I keep an eye on how much I drink, or used to drink haha, and that covers the dangerous stuff. However, food is another story. If I find food that I like, I will consume as much as I can no matter how fattening or rich it is. Before a few weeks ago, I used to drink about 6 or 7 cups of coffee a day. 
Students identify other modes of self-indulgence as well:
Do I believe I am a temperate person, always? No. I have many days where I wish I could just not do anything. School work, normal work, dealing with friends’ drama—nothing. These same days are the days where I just want to spoil myself—whether it’s shopping, getting my hair/nails done or playing video games all day long. Can I afford these luxuries? No. So regrettably, I do not have these days and I mourn them—basically everything Aristotle told me not to do. So I guess in a sense I have the vice of self-indulgence.
I'll end here with what was perhaps one of the most contemplative and well-informed student reflections on the virtue of temperance:
If I do self-indulge my desires, I will always try to balance it out with the opposite. An example would be if I ate too much that day/week, I would make an effort to exercise more that day/week. In doing so, I would counter my actions to be in a state of equilibrium. . . . .  This isn’t exactly in accordance with Aristotle’s view of temperance in that the person should always enjoy the pleasure “to the degree they ought too” – but I do view myself as a temperate individual since I always balance my actions.

Yet as I write this, I am starting to question myself. Do I just live a life of vice according to Aristotle’s view of temperance? I would be if I was constantly doing things in excess, but I do not. Only when I do act in excess, I make an effort to balance the bad with the good.

However if I exercise too much in order to balance the excess of food intake, I would be committing a vice. According to the readings, it is not a method of weighing out the bad with the good, but actually abiding to that one virtue. It seems like I actually need more help in this area to always be mindful of the level of pleasure I should take out of something. However I do find pleasure in living the temperate lifestyle or when I am fully balanced, which does make me a temperate individual according to the writings.

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