A Conversation with Jason Baehr

Photo by Jon Rou

Jason Baehr, associate professor of philosophy, received a grant of more than $1 million from the John Templeton Foundation to, first, study the importance of intellectual virtues and how they can be fostered in an education setting, and, second, implement an intellectual virtues curriculum that will be introduced in fall 2013 at a charter school in Long Beach, Calif. Baehr’s specialty is epistemology. He was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

What are the intellectual virtues that will be stressed in your curriculum?
They include curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual courage and tenacity, intellectual thoroughness, and other personal qualities required for good thinking and learning. The focus will be on intellectual character development.

Will teachers require special training to teach this curriculum?
The academic curriculum of the school will be based on state standards, but there are practices, terminologies, values and forms of assessment in which teachers will need to be trained.

Is this emphasis different from the values-based education approach popularized by former Secretary of Education William Bennett?
Absolutely. Intellectual character education is not about promoting controversial moral or religious values. It’s about a commitment to knowledge, truth and learning, and the personal qualities that flow out of that commitment.

At what grade levels will the curriculum be introduced?
My project will start at the sixth-grade level and end with the end of high school. The emphasis on curiosity, wonder, thoughtfulness and attentiveness is lost, it seems, in the later stages of education. Yet, at those stages, we often talk about fostering the love of learning and producing lifelong learners. Intellectual virtues like those we are emphasizing are the character traits of lifelong learners.

How will you measure results?
Figuring that out is part of the first stage of the research project, which will involve research, conferences and workshops that will provide a better idea of how to assess intellectual character growth. Each intellectual virtue has certain behaviors and activities associated with it. So we need to identify those behaviors and activities and come up with ways of measuring them. In many ways, schools do that now. Any good rubric will ask about thoroughness, carefulness and depth.

What spurred you to explore this area?
I’ve been writing for 10 years about intellectual character and virtues. But I’ve been struck by how rarely they are taken seriously in educational institutions. The project, then, is one of applied philosophy. This project asks certain questions. Why are these qualities important to education? What would it look like to teach for these qualities? How can a classroom culture be designed to foster and promote these qualities?

Will we see the day when we have clinical professors of philosophy, like clinical professors of engineering or psychology?
Good question. There is a lot of applied philosophy today that takes moral or ethical theory and applies it to a practical domain: environmental philosophy and bioethics, for example. What we’re doing is taking theory from epistemology and applying it to the domain of education.

Would you register your own children in a school with a curriculum like yours?
Indeed, I plan to. Our oldest son will be in the first class at the school. We expect our other two children to attend as well.

Jason Baehr
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