Teaching Virtue

According to Russell Kirk’s essay, “Can Virtue Be Taught?,” the virtue of America is dangerously on the verge of collapse and “it is not propaganda nor productivity nor intellectuality that has power to invigorate Americaat the crisis of the nation’s fate” (Kirk, 1987, pg. 1). Kirk believes moral lessons and the character development of American youth have been neglected. Moral virtue is not being conveyed for many reasons, but in great part due to “the decay of family…modern affluence and modern mobility” (Kirk, 1987, pg. 1). Kirk criticizes those who believe the school system is wholly responsible for raising up virtuous citizens: “it would be vain for us to pretend that schools and colleges somehow could make amends for all the neglect of character resulting from the inadequacies of the American family” (Kirk, 1987, pg. 1). However, Kirk recalls a time when intellectual virtue was imparted successfully in eighteenth century British America. They were schooled in the reality of virtue and through literature; they learned to train their emotions, and were “required to read carefully…certain enduring books that dealt much with virtue” (Kirk, 1987, pg. 1). C.S. Lewis writes about the necessity and influence of such literature: “without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism” (Kirk, 1987, pg. 1). He is writing about how unrealistic it is to expect American youth to grow up to be moral, self-controlled citizens if we are not promoting and teaching those virtues. Just as one would not expect daisies to grow without first planting those specific seeds, fertilizing and watering them, so Lewis is explaining how simply illogical it is to expect a virtuous generation without laying and fostering the proper foundation.

While the classroom may not be able to overcome the laundry list of inadequacies and deficiencies in the lives of every youth, there are many proactive strategies that I intend to implement and develop within my English classroom. Consciously selecting literature that provides opportunities for discussion and promotes the development of personal judgments about virtues is a great foundation. Displaying pertinent and meaningful quotes about virtuous behaviors and attitudes is a way of daily reminding and reinforcing valuable aspects of character development. And finally, holding students accountable to classroom expectations such as respect and fairness, as well as engaging students in conversation about virtuous behaviors and attitudes in everyday life are proactive approaches to promoting citizenship and moral education.



worksheet adapted from Russell Kirk’s “Can Virtue Be Taught?” The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things are Written in the Sky, 1987.