In Search of Virtue in Honors
Of the three forms of friendship discussed by Aristotle—the useful, the pleasant, and the good—the ideal seminar most resembles the perfectly good friendship between “good men who are alike in excellence or virtue” (Aristotle 1156b). A seminar, the Swarthmore website reads, unites faculty with “small groups of dedicated and accomplished students” committed to “independent learning” and “dialogue with peers, teachers, and examiners.” In light of Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian thought on friendship, virtue and practical wisdom, this discussion will first examine how an ideal seminar promotes student virtues and then proceed to evaluate an e-mail I wrote in response to an imperfect seminar.
Aristotle contends that friendship is instrumental for acquiring and maintaining moral excellence:
…the friendship of good men is good, and it increases with their meetings. Also, it seems, they become better as they are active together and correct one another: from the mould of the other each takes the imprint of the trait he likes, whence the saying: ‘Noble things from noble people.’ (1172a)
Similarly, a seminar composed of individuals with student virtues—including diligence, intelligence, curiosity, patience, and humility—can best maintain and encourage virtue. Rosemary Volbrecht’s “Mutual Apprenticeship in moral development,” Nancy Sherman’s “Making a Necessity of Virtue,” Laurence Thomas’ Living Morally and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics outline the means by which friendship encourages moral virtue. An extrapolation from moral virtues to student virtues frames their discussion in the context of an honors seminar at Swarthmore.
Volbrecht highlights the importance of role models in experiential moral development (Volbrecht 309). Abstract behavioral rules fail to impart virtue; the observation of dynamic and contextual behavior of role models, on the other hand, helps cultivate flexible moral judgment. The use of role models allows moral agents to “see the good as good and to see what is the good in a particular situation” (309). At Swarthmore, the honors program makes implicit use of role models. In seminar, seniors initially set the tone for juniors to follow.
Honors seminars also provide a forum for “moral self-examination” (Thomas 140) which encourages deliberation among equals. Seminars allow a degree of academic intimacy and debate which is unavailable in a lecture hall. In Living Morally, Laurence Thomas writes that “Not infrequently…self-examination requires a dialogue” (140). In the Ethics, Aristotle highlights the importance of deliberation in proceeding with practical wisdom: “When great issues are at stake, we distrust our own abilities as insufficient to decide the matter and call in others to join us in our deliberation” (Aristotle 1112b). Successful deliberation, then, often requires the union of various perspectives. In my experience, the wisdom of groups of people outpaces the ability...