When people are asked, “What is the main purpose of education?” typical responses include: the mastery of valuable content, the development of critical thinking and communication skills, and a host of other important outcomes of a strong education.  Recently, researchers have argued that in the long run, a successful education includes all these things, but goes much deeper.  As Ron Ritchhart of Harvard University’s Project Zero writes,

When all is said and done, when the last test is taken, what will stay with a student from his or her education?  Memories, certainly.  Treasured experiences, positive relationships, meaningful interactions, yes.  But what about the knowledge and skills teachers have worked so hard to impart?  Surprisingly, we don’t have much evidence that these have a very long shelf life.  So what sticks?  What kind of learning lasts beyond a given year that we can grab hold of to guide our vision? (Intellectual Character, 9)

Ritchhart provides an answer that is in line, not only with the latest research, but the best in Christian and classical thought over the last two millennia.  He continues,

(We) contend that what stays with us from our education are patterns:  patterns of behavior, patterns of thinking, patterns of interaction.  These patterns make up our character, specifically our intellectual character… what we are made of as thinkers and learners.  Schools can do much to shape and influence these patterns.  This is the kind of long-term vision we need for education: to be shapers of students’ intellectual character. (Ibid)

Intellectual Virtue as a Rosslyn Core Value

In 2013, Rosslyn took almost a year to determine what values were most central to our identity.  We considered a host of important ideals, but ultimately settled on five “Core Values”.  As an unapologetically and enthusiastically Christian school, Christ-likeness was chosen as our central animating value.  Alongside this core “Core Value” we settled on the values of Excellence, Service, Community, and Intellectual Virtue.  Excellence, Service, and Community are widely understood terms, but what about “Intellectual Virtue”?  What exactly is Intellectual Virtue?

Intellectual Character Unpacked

One way to think about intellectual character is as the force of accumulated thinking habits that shape and color every decision we make.  It is who we are, and who we are becoming, as thinkers.

Another way of thinking about intellectual character is as the combination of our embedded thinking traits that can be virtuous or harmful – traits like intellectual tenacity (or laziness), intellectual humility (or arrogance), intellectual fair-mindedness (or chauvinism); intellectual curiosity (or apathy); and intellectual courage (or cowardice).

A final snapshot definition of intellectual character (specifically good intellectual character) is the deeply-rooted thinking habits that naturally result from an extended and earnest pursuit of the Truth.

To get a glimpse of the influence of just one intellectual virtue (courage) on life and learning, imagine Sarah, a third grade girl at Rosslyn, who is being challenged with long-division for the first time. She doesn’t “get” it, and is scared to ask for help.  It seems small but Sarah is facing a fork in the road.  Consider the difference to Sarah’s future learning and life success if at that moment (and in countless similar moments ahead) she makes the courageous choice to raise her hand (intellectual courage) versus deciding to keep quiet and fall further behind (intellectual cowardice).  By being intellectually courageous, she risks the temporary embarrassment of betraying her ignorance, but she gets the help she needs to understand the process and to build on that learning for tomorrow.  She grows in knowledge and confidence and, just as importantly, she develops a habit of intellectual courage that will make it easier for her to take risks in learning the next time.   Now imagine the life and learning trajectory of Sarah if she is not only developing intellectually courageous character, but is also growing in the other six intellectual virtues of: curiosity, humility, tenacity, carefulness, fair-mindedness and honesty?  This is the inspiring and life transforming vision we have for all of our students at Rosslyn.


Rosslyn is just beginning the journey of making intellectual virtue part of our school culture.  We believe that the development of virtuous intellectual character is one of the most important and life-changing quests any school can embark on.  But as a Christian school, we see the pursuit of intellectual virtue, this marriage of character and good thinking, as the very heart of what it means to love God with all of our minds.  As your students’ pursue learning and life at Rosslyn, it is our intention to harness the learning process to help nurture in them the virtuous intellectual character traits – like tenacity, carefulness, curiosity, courage, honesty, fair-mindedness, and humility – that will not only produce dynamic and lifelong learners, but will spill over into, and positively transform, every other aspect of our students’ lives.

In the next several blog posts I will begin to unpack specific intellectual virtues and will demonstrate the richness of a life characterized by these traits.

Large portions of the section, “Intellectual Virtue Unpacked” were taken from Virtuous Minds by Philip E. Dow. Copyright (c) 2013 by Philip E. Dow. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com