BY MIKE BROTHERS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF UNIVERSITY RELATIONS
These skills and traits depend on a few of the many intangibles that those who have been educated in the liberal arts say they find invaluable in their careers, and in a life well lived. Specifically, they rely on the character traits that form a foundation for lasting success. In a world increasingly focused on the acquisition of pure skills—particularly in the realm of higher education—liberal arts schools stress the balance of these intangibles.
It does so in numerous ways, but if it could be distilled into one word, that word might very well be: community. Implicit in that idea is a concept that is as timeless as the liberal arts tradition itself, but not often spoken of today: virtue.
What, exactly, is virtue? Why is it meaningful to a place like Drury?
“To explore what virtue is, it’s often helpful to start by explaining what it is not,” says Dr. Chris Panza, a professor of philosophy at Drury who has spent his career studying virtue ethics. “Virtues are not skills. Virtues are personal. Virtues are transformational—a part of who you are, part of your hardwiring.”
Civilizations, philosophers and faith traditions have lauded various virtues over the centuries. Plato and Confucius identified essential virtues in their writings. The ancient Romans venerated virtues that were central to upholding the Republic. Luminaries like Kant and Nietzsche contemplated virtue. Many of America’s founding fathers believed only a virtuous society would long perpetuate their grand experiment in self-government.
The presence of virtues in us change the way we see and interpret the world. Possessing a virtue such as courage, for example, is not so much about a single act (like running into a burning building to save a life) but rather about seeing the world in a way that leads us to a lifetime of taking risks in the pursuit of a greater good. On the opposing side, virtues are anked by vices of excess and de ciency; for example, hubris and cowardice are the result of too much, or too little, courage. Although countless virtues have been lauded through the ages, most fall into two broad categories. There are moral virtues, which deal with goodness and include temperance, prudence, justice and courage. And there are intellectual virtues, which deal with the excellence of a mind that pursues truth and embraces wisdom and understanding. These encompass traits such as intellec- tual courage, open-mindedness and tenacity in seeking answers to important questions.
Whether moral or intellectual, virtues, when one has them and when they are properly balanced, orient the mind toward actions that are bene cial, ethical, wise or otherwise positive.
“When a person’s character is well-shaped, the way a person thinks and feels is directed toward the right target, in terms of that virtue,” Panza says.
A hardwiring for character is not innate. Generations of philosophical thought and our own everyday experiences tell us that character is primarily formed as a result of being part of a community where examples are modeled, expectations are set, and habits are formed through repeated practice. “Virtue is a kind of community commitment to acquiring a shared set of valued traits. It’s about the common arena, in a way,” Panza says.
Being a part of a community dedicated to something larger than oneself nurtures the virtues—those underlying character traits—that in turn lead a person to commit to ideals beyond the self. A school such as Drury, where faculty and students are committed to the pursuit of both personal passions and professional excellence in a small, intimate setting, is ideal for nurturing this kind of growth, Panza believes. “Virtue has always been scaled to size, and this has always been part of the conversation around virtue ethics—that the larger the community, the harder it is to pull off.”
Dr. Peter Browning, professor of religion and Drury’s longtime chaplain, has also studied virtue, although through the lens of Christian ethics. He’s convinced that something happens in the lives of young people while at Drury that doesn’t happen at larger schools.
“In my experience here, I’ve noticed how a pretty high percentage of Drury students get a leadership experience, get to be an officer in a club, a fraternity, a sorority, a service organization, an intramural team. They get to be a part of a little community within the community, and I think it’s often those little communities that end up shaping them the most,” Browning says. “That moves them in a certain direction in terms of values, in terms of their relationship to others.”
Communities help us form habits, and it is in those regular habits and small details that a person’s true character is often both tested and revealed. Small groups such as teams, clubs and service organizations hold people accountable to their habits. But, through its tight-knit community, Drury as a whole also holds people accountable to one another. As one recent graduate reflecting on her time at Drury a few days before her graduation put it: “You’re more obligated to your character here. You have to stand by the choices you make. I think that can be more difficult, but I also think gives you an opportunity to be more mature and grow.”
The concept of shaping or molding an individual through community is as old as the philosophical exploration of human virtue. Panza says Eastern philosophers compared the process to that of bonsai, the meticulous cultivation of individual trees or plants. Social activist Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, said: “We must be pruned to grow.”
This concept of formation is often thought of in terms of moral virtues. This was no doubt part of the origin of the description in earlier times of Drury’s campus as “40 acres of Christian atmosphere.” Drury has since grown well beyond those 40 acres in size, and has never been a religious college per se. Yet the concept of formation is inherent in the DNA of place like Drury, which was founded on the belief that education can change lives and bridge divides. It is the intellectual virtues, Panza argues, that are central and vital to the mission of university community such as Drury. They are universal and tend to transcend political and cultural divides. They are an essential part of the bridge Drury’s founders intended to build. “It is not a left-right issue to be courageous and take intellectual risks,” he says.
But no matter the angle from which you approach the concept of virtue, the common thread of shaping and formation is constant, Browning says. The idea is that one cannot pull oneself up by his or her own moral or intellectual bootstraps. Young people choosing their path in life will find the way forward becomes clearer when mentors, teachers, role models and caring peers help light the way. An education with that kind of power goes far beyond the mere acquisition of skills.
“I think what we’re wanting to give people in the end is not just the track to be successful financially—and I don’t want to dismiss that—but we’re also giving people an opportunity to have a life of meaning,” Browning explains. “And I don’t think that’s trivial. In the end, people are yearning for integrity, meaning and life beyond themselves.”
VIRTUE & VIRTUOSITY
For Drury president Dr. Tim Cloyd, the ability to cultivate virtue as part of the student experience is one way in which liberal arts colleges can differentiate themselves in an era when higher education is increasingly commoditized. For his inauguration this fall, Cloyd chose the theme “Virtue & Virtuosity,” a phrase he often uses to describe Drury’s blend of the traditional methods of educating free-thinking people with its high-caliber professional schools that ignite careers.
“The combination of the virtues of the liberal arts and the virtuosity of profession- al competencies,” Cloyd said in his opening convocation speech in 2016, “is what makes the Drury classroom experience so unique.”
Panza agrees, as would so many Drury alumni. Panza believes if a student is able to cultivate strong intellectual virtues alongside foundational moral virtues, “you’re kind of an unstoppable person. You’re autonomous. You’re directed towards truth. You’ll be tenacious no matter what eld you go into, and you’ll take risks. You’ll be generous with others intellectually, and you’ll be open minded when considering the views of others,” he says. “Add to that the skills necessary for a career, and you’ve armed a person with everything they could possibly want. I don’t know what more a college could do.”