Robert M. Hutchins (1899-1977) - president of the University of Chicago. This article is excerpted from the April 22, 1938 issue of Commonweal.

Make it a habit

By Robert Maynard Hutchins

The object of education is the production of virtue; for virtue is that which makes a man good and his work good, too. As virtue makes a man and his work good, so also it makes him happy, for happiness is activity in accordance with virtue. As virtue makes a man good and makes him happy, so also it makes him a good citizen, and this is the aim of general or liberal education. The four cardinal virtues are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude, and one description of them is that they are social virtues, the virtues that good living in society requires.

The virtues are habits, and are acquired, like other habits, by doing certain acts. A man becomes just by doing just acts, temperate by being temperate, and brave by acting bravely. One cannot become good merely by listening to lectures on moral philosophy, any more than one can become a famous violin player or tennis champion by reading textbooks. The beginnings of those habits which am the moral virtues are found in the training received in childhood. It is unlikely that a college student can acquire them for the first time in college; for when he has reached that age he has already committed so many acts that his habits, good and bad, me formed.

Nevertheless, habits may be lost, corrupted, or diminished. The violin player who stops playing and the tennis champion who stops practicing will soon fall from their lofty eminence. And though the moral virtues am among the most durable of all goods, they, like other habits, may be lost, and for the same reasons. Thus an educational institution will wish to confirm and support the moral virtues of its students and modify their vices. As we have seen, instruction in how to be good is not likely to be effective. The students must act, and act in such a way as to strengthen their virtues and weaken their vices.

In this effort at some level of education, instruction in moral philosophy has a part to play. If the habits formed through training in childhood are to survive, they must be sustained by reason. All education swings mound the ancient dictum that man is a rational animal. He may be trained in infancy as animals are trained, But as he becomes a man his reason must understand and approve his actions; for in the order of human powers reason rules.

It is here that we see the connection between the moral and the intellectual virtues. As the object of the moral virtues is the good, so the object of the intellectual virtues is the truth. The moral virtues depend upon prudence, which is practical wisdom. If a man is to do good actions, he must do them from choice and not from impulse or by accident. Correct choice depends on the determination of the right end and of the right means of obtaining it. Through the moral virtues our desires and appetites are perfected so that we select the proper ends.

The great and specific contribution that a college or university can make to the development of virtue is in supplying the rational basis for it, that is, in developing the intellectual virtues. Wisdom, science, and understanding, the three speculative virtues, and prudence, the good habit of the practical intellect, must be the focus of a university's educational endeavor. They are the criterion of teaching and research. The text of a good course is not whether it is amusing or informational or seems to contribute to financial success, any more than the test of a good research project is whether it is expensive and elaborate and produces large literary poundage, The real test of instruction or research is whether it has high intellectual content and demands intellectual effort. Otherwise it has no place in a university, for it cannot assist in forming those habits which a university education is designed to foster.

If we turn to the production of good citizens, we see that democracy rests on the assumption that the citizens will be intelligent. This means that their education must assist them in learning how to think and get them into the habit of doing it. Their intellects must be disciplined. They must know how to read, to listen, to write, and to speak. They must have standards of judging thinking, including their own. They must know the difference between honest thinking and sophistry and between reasoning and rationalization. Only by disciplines that teach them these differences can they hope to resist the demagogue and the propagandist.

They must understand, too, the nature of man and the nature of political society, for otherwise they will not be good men or good members of a political society. They must be good and wise in respect to their own ends and in their relations with other men, If they are, they will understand that the good life can be led only in a political society, and that such a society is an organization designed to promote the common good. The common good is that condition of peace, order, and economic sufficiency which provides hap-piness for all to the degree to which they can participate in it. Happiness is activity in accordance with the moral and intellectual virtues, that is, good moral and intellectual habits.

The economic and social injustice of our times results from the weakness or absence of the moral and intellectual virtues, which, as we have seen, are interdependent. Economic and social injustice does not result from lack of information, lack of natural resources, or any failure of technology. We are plentifully supplied with all three. No, the principal issue of our day is a moral and intellectual one. The great problems of labor, capital, the Constitution, the judiciary, communism, fascism, war and peace revolve around fundamental questions which every student ought to face intelligently, questions affecting the ends of economic activity, of organized society, and of human life.

Yet it is possible to graduate from many colleges and universities without being compelled to face such questions and without the disciplines which would be needed to face them intelligently. Higher education must share the blame for the condition in which we find ourselves.