When “Cultivating Virtue” Becomes A Cliche Marketing Strategy

There are two kinds of classical schools. There are classical schools which claim a classical education is about the cultivation of virtue, and there are classical schools which claim a classical education is about teaching students how to think, not what to think. The latter kind tend to present classical education primarily through the work of Dorothy Sayers and describe classical methodology in terms of developmental psychology and cognitive theory. Freud taught there were five stages, Piaget taught there were four, Sayers taught there were three— suffice to say the idea that childhood passes in a series of stages appeals to those with a distinctly 20th century sort of worldview.

If you begin a survey of the “About Classical Education” tabs on classical Christian school websites, you will find quite a bit of Sayers, quite a bit of how— not what— to think, and very little discussion of virtue. I would wager only one website in ten speaks of classical education as the habituation of virtue. The rest describe classical education in terms of stages. Despite the fact virtue is poorly represented on classical school’s websites, discussion of the central role which virtue must play in a good education has grown over the last decade and will continue to grow over the next ten years. This could be a happily development for classical education, but not necessarily.

If the use of “cultivating virtue” as a marketing strategy outpaces the reading of Dante and Augustine, we can expect “cultivating virtue” to become a cliché, which will mean referencing virtue often enough, but rarely talking about what it means. When it becomes a cliché, “virtue” will become the justification for our methods, our texts, and our service projects, and our students will moan when teachers use the word, for it will simply be a shibboleth, a magical incantation, a password which commands obedience but not loyalty.

No one sets out to create a cliché. A cliché emerges accidentally in much the same way a man who moves from an active job to an office job inevitably puts on weight. In this decade, “virtue” could easily become for classical schools what “diversity” was to secular institutions in the 90s or what “authenticity” was to evangelicals in the 00s. Authenticity and diversity can serve a fine and noble purpose, but as clichés, both concepts were black holes that sucked in every attempt at rational thought which came near. A cliché is a word which has accrued so much power that it refuses to associate with other words and thus becomes meaningless, for meaning is the harmonious relationship of different words. Institutions must be careful in policing their mission statements and honor codes against clichés— when clichés have made their way into the highest and most iconic creeds of an institution, members will soon become cynical.

In order to fight clichés, one must go into the trenches of a cliché term, explore it, patiently observe it, understand its etymological value, its historical value, digest everything the ancients said on the matter, not to mention the Church fathers and Medieval scholars. Luckily, the ancients have far more to say about “virtue” than “community.” “Community” could not help becoming a cliché, for we speak of “community” not as a thing, but an abstract concept, which is why every corporate website in the world prominently features some claim like, “At Philip Morris International, we believe community is important.” “Community” did not become an abstraction until well after the French Revolution, at which time “revolution” also became an abstraction. On the other hand, just about every ancient thinker— Christian or pagan— has something to say on the subject of virtue.

To keep “virtue” from being a cliché, the first thing we must do is give up our desire to define the term as we like it. Gentleness is not a virtue, but a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and must be understood as such. The same is true of kindness and patience. There are seven virtues, three are distinctly Christian (faith, hope, love) and four are simply human (wisdom, justice, courage, temperance), by which I mean that even pagans can be courageous and just, though there is nothing salvific about being courageous. When Christians refer to faith, hope, and love, they do not mean faith in any old thing, or love of any old body. Faith is only a Christian virtue inasmuch as faith is put in Christ. The same is true of hope (in Christ) and love (of Christ).

For classical Christian communities, the human virtues present little occasion for disagreement. The Christian virtues are a sticking point, though. Wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance are all matters of morality, by which I mean the duty one man owes another. On the other hand, the Christian virtues are not unconcerned altogether with morality, but they are far more about a man’s relationship with God. Simply put, the Christian virtues are concerned with piety, and a great many American Christians simply do not believe piety exists, or else they barely believe it exists.

The Jews held there were three pillars of piety: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Christ believed as much, as well, for His most famous sermon is about how Christians should pray, fast, and give alms. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives detailed and nuanced instructions to His followers on how to do all three. I often tell my students that piety is a kind of “holy etiquette” or “holy manners,” and that all pious actions are rendered unto God, not man. Only God answers prayer. Only God recompenses a fast. And while our friends can repay invitations to dinner, the poor cannot repay our gifts, thus Christ personally accepts all the money we give to the poor (“Inasmuch as you did it for the least of these brethren, you did it for Me”).

While Christ openly proclaims that God repays acts of piety, the idea is still rather controversial among modern Christians, who are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of storing up treasure in heaven. If God repays acts of piety, we are under some obligation to perform acts of piety, and we generally do not like the idea that Christianity imposes any real obligations on us, for obligations nullify the idea that salvation is a free gift. As Rusty Reno puts it in “Fighting the Noonday Devil,” we prefer to see the Christian tradition as “a resource for our spiritual journeys, not as a mandatory itinerary,” and thus each man “can pick and choose according to [his] own spiritual needs,” which means that a man may fast and gives alms only if he really wants to. Dante and Augustine saw the matter far differently. Thus, any humanities teacher who offers robust instruction to students on how and why to cultivate virtue will, over the course of a ten-year career, eventually have to answer half-baked charges of preaching a works righteousness gospel— and this brings me back to my original point. There are two kinds of classical schools: those with the guts and theological savvy to answer these half-baked charges, and those which would prefer to step around them.

Of course, you really cannot judge a school on the merit of the “About Classical Education” tab on its website alone. Many fine teachers of virtue are employed by schools with incoherent websites and a school is only as good as the student’s experience in the classroom. Nonetheless, I suspect that the people charged with filling out the “About Classical Education” tabs typically have very little classroom experience. Any teacher who is considering taking a position at a classical school should, in the course of his interview, ask the headmaster or principal what old books he has read lately. Has he read Augustine? Plato? Virgil? Dante? If he responds, “Well, I’m really more involved in management. I take care of big picture issues and discipline issues so that teachers can do what they do best,” the teaching candidate ought to run and never look back, no matter how much the salary is. He won’t know which way is up when those half-baked charges are levelled.

I am hopeful that “cultivating virtue” will prove a slogan less liable to becoming cliché than “community” and “authenticity” simply because it is much older and so much has already been said about it— but digging into virtue is apt to reawaken a number of arguments about good works. Any classical school that wants to shift its official language away from “stages” and toward “virtue” needs to be prepared to have those arguments, and to side with Dante and Augustine on the matter.

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