Cultivation Requirements: Teaching Virtue Ethics for Whole-Child Education
By Evan Dutmer
I teach ethics and leadership in the Department of Leadership Education at Culver Academies, a boarding school in northern Indiana. I received my PhD in Ancient Philosophy from Northwestern University in 2019. In this post I’d like to share more about my experiences teaching ethics with young people and my professional journey to educating in a high school environment. I’ll also share more about the program I help lead at Culver which requires ethics education of all students—in the form of a required junior-level course in virtue ethics and transformational, ethical leadership, “Ethics and the Cultivation of Character”—as part of its mission rooted in whole-person education.
My hope, ultimately, is that by sharing my experiences other philosophers will continue to see the possibilities and joys of doing philosophy (and especially ethics) with young people and consider whether they would like to apply their talents to the K-12 teaching profession. In so doing, of course, I follow on the decades long work of PLATO, P4C, AAPT and other professional organizations and initiatives from whom I’ve learned so much.
Early in my PhD studies I realized that teaching was not peripheral to my academic identity and interests, but, rather, that the practice and continual improvement of my teaching were central to what I wanted from a philosophy career path. I learned that my teaching motivated both my academic interests and my own professional development. In short, I saw that teaching was the part of my graduate student obligations that gave me the most energy, purpose, and direction. Teaching also focused and clarified my research interests as well.
I was lucky to have this energy and enthusiasm for teaching fostered by learning in a certificate program for graduate students at Northwestern’s Searle Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Continued connection with Searle provided me my first opportunity to engage in philosophy with young people through an opportunity to teaching high schoolers at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. In spring 2018 I taught an introductory class centered on philosophy as a way of life themes entitled “An Introduction to Philosophy Through Socrates.”
Having enjoyed teaching at ETHS, I sought out additional opportunities for high school philosophy, Classics, and humanities education. I then learned more about independent schools through an informational session run at Northwestern by Carney, Sandoe & Associates. I was excited to learn that philosophy was in fact taught in several high schools through interdisciplinary humanities programs. My research interests and expertise in Roman philosophy also left me well-positioned to teach Latin at the high school level.
I arrived at Culver in 2018, first as Instructor in Latin. I began teaching ethics in 2019 in our Department of Leadership Education through our ethics course—a graduation requirement for all students—“Ethics and the Cultivation of Character”.
This course (which I more fully outlined here and here) highlights, I think, some of the rich possibilities for ethics education at the high school level. These possibilities, in my case, build out from robust institutional support: the mission of the institution includes a commitment to whole-person education through cultivation of character. (I include this to suggest to those philosophers interested in high school education that institutional mission and values can be a friend to philosophical and ethical inquiry and practice—especially with important shifts taking place in desired skills that emphasize the competencies of global citizenship.)
I think teaching this ethics course has deepened my engagement with philosophy and ethics while simultaneously increasing the impact of my teaching in a few distinct ways.
First, with primary and secondary education’s particular emphasis on application, transfer, and habituation of learning, I think I’ve encouraged deeper learning in my ethics classrooms, enhancing the potential for students’ engagement with ethics to have a lifelong impact.
The result is that our students engage in ethics not as a merely theoretical exercise detached from any expectation of application. Rather, from the outset, students apply what they learn to their lived experience through a weekly ‘Character Lab’ reflective exercise and other iterative, application-focused tasks that ask students to immerse themselves in the practices of a lived virtue ethic. Drawing on resources in both philosophy and psychology students reflect on their character using a daily process journal, engage in a process of values clarification using Shalom Schwartz’s influential theory of basic values, set and critically reflect on goals aligned to those values using a goal hierarchy exercise derived from Aristotelian ends-based reasoning, and participate in daily practices of emotional self-awareness and self-regulation (that later inform students’ reasoning and discussion of ethical case studies) using the Mood Meter and Meta Moment anchor tools of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence RULER framework. Accordingly, our courses share much in common with the immersive aspects of Philosophy as a Way of Life pedagogy. (See an upcoming piece, “‘To form more than inform’: The transformative pedagogy of Philosophy as a Way of Life,” which I co-authored with Paul Blaschko, Haley Dutmer, and Blake Ziegler, soon to appear in AAPT Studies.)
To take one example, students in our Ethics courses perform for a midterm assessment not with a traditional paper or exam, but rather prepare for and conduct a mock interview with me, the instructor, as they aim for a particular (fictitious) student life leadership position—that of a “Character Integrator” (we borrow the term from West Point’s Character Integration Advisory Group), a sort of peer character “coach”. As part of this interview students prepare for answering several questions that assess their knowledge and understanding of the basics of an applied virtue theory—namely, what sort of thing virtues and character strengths are, how they tie together in a vision for the good life, and how they might be applied to lived experiences and real-life situations—but, more importantly, they prepare for questions that also assess how fully students are prepared to make this knowledge and understanding come alive through values-aligned, evidence-based leadership practices in the role that motivate and uplift their fellow students. Evidence of student success in this assessment shifts from evidence of mere “academic” understanding to something resembling more of a transferable “life skill” or, more commonly now, evidence of a competency or what students can do.
In essence, our course provides students with the tools to reason well about ethics (especially by using thinking routines to habituate certain intellectual virtues as well) but also with the tools for applying ethics to their own lives in the spirit of Aristotle’s injunction at Nicomachean Ethics 1095a5-6: “The end of [ethics] is action, not knowledge” (see here for helpful discussion). In this we also share in a commitment to a growth and action-focused spiral curriculum model, where student development is the overarching aim of the course rather than knowledge acquisition (as helpfully outlined here by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at University of Birmingham).
Further, this focus on application has been transformative for me as an instructor. In my prior experiences teaching philosophy, transfer and application (especially in the ‘first-person’) were only distantly considered—if not outright avoided or looked down upon. I’ve become keenly aware of the distance I placed between myself and ethics I both studied and taught.
When I now have students attempting to chart their own actions on the Golden or Central Mean (also availing themselves of contemporary tools in positive psychology) or see students considering how they might aim to incorporate justice as a virtue more fully in their lives through structured reflection, I notice in myself a profound change in my role as teacher. Far from a dispassionate arbiter of student understanding—the so-called “sage on the stage”—I find myself rooting for students in their ethical growth as a fellow proficiens “one making progress” (for more on the Stoic concept I’m employing, see here and my own reflections here and here from my Latin teaching practice).
This coaching aspect to the act of teaching and learning—sometimes at a remove in large lecture undergraduate education—enlivens high school ethics in ways I continue to learn to appreciate. My students are particularly well-suited to considering the relevance and application of ethics to both their own individual futures and our collective futures, gripped as they are by the possibilities (and fears) of tomorrow’s world. I’ve seen this through my co-coaching of our Ethics Bowl team, which this year won first place in the state competition. For my students these case studies are not just an intellectual exercise—but practice and application of genuine solutions to real-world societal challenges.
In this post I’ve presented aspects of my professional story that I hope will help other philosophers see the potential and promise of ethics and philosophy education at the K-12 level, especially in interdisciplinary contexts. In my case, I’ve been very fortunate to receive strong institutional support for a required reflective ethics experience—the “Ethics and Cultivation of Character” course. But I’ve suggested above that many institutions have similar commitments, and philosophers could help to lead curricular innovation that places these commitments for educating critical thinkers, whole-persons, and global citizens at the center of a school’s curriculum rather than its margins.