Introduction: Teaching Virtue and Vocation in History 

Often I’ve found that I carry aspects of the teacher’s call to my children, and—as I’ll explore in my upcoming series of posts—my parenting informs my pedagogy in return.

A series of posts about virtue, autism, vocation, and the history of teaching.

Martin Dotterweich

Vocations inform each other, and two of mine seem to be in constant dialogue, deep calling to deep: teaching and parenting. Often I’ve found that I carry aspects of the teacher’s call to my children, and—as I’ll explore in my upcoming series of posts—my parenting informs my pedagogy in return. I’m sure this is a common experience, but mine has a twist that keeps surprising me. This is because both of my children have autism.

It has been easy to see the ways that my teaching has affected my parenting, and Kathleen and Peter would probably attest with a roll of the eyes that, yes, Dad drags us to places he likes and talks a lot. There exists a video of me explaining a thatched roof to them in which they wander off while I keep talking. It’s on brand. 

More surprising has been how much my call as a parent has shaped my teaching and how much my children shape me as a person. I realize how much I learn from them. Specifically, they have helped me understand something that I teach in my history courses: the four cardinal virtues. 

Learning the virtues from Kathleen and Peter has been timely because I came to the virtues late. When I was in college and divinity school, Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981) was being read across the disciplines.1 As the word “after” suggests, it is both a lively critique of modernity and a proposal for practical living, and it energized the faculty who were teaching me, found its way onto syllabi, and invited scholarly responses. But somehow, I missed it. This may have been because I was busily studying other topics, or because I was trying to figure out how to be less uncool, or because I can be pretty unaware of my surroundings. I suspect all three were involved. From my limited vantage point, moreover, virtue seemed a subject only for ethics, and ethics was not my area of interest.  

So I pursued doctoral work in history and began teaching without thinking much about virtue. My early teaching was grounded in a strong sense that history was worth knowing for its own sake, and I expected my students to catch my enthusiasm and run with it. This grounding worked occasionally but not often, so I tried a different approach: here’s why we have a free society, I said, easing into a century-old “Whig history” justification of the Western Civilization course. But I found few whiggish responses. 

The fact was that most of my students were consumed by work and family stresses that I had not borne as an undergraduate. Even those who liked history and chose to major in it were burdened in ways that I did not at first appreciate. This was rocky soil for the kinds of seed I was spreading. I confess that I sowed indiscriminately for a time, simply hoping that something, anything, would catch root. But then along came a better way, thanks to NetVUE. 

I finally discovered virtue. 

At the Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar in 2019, certain chapters from At This Time and In This Place opened the door to the virtues. I was particularly drawn to essays by Paul Waddell, Hannah Schell, Thomas Albert Howard, and Douglas Henry. These essays provided me with an overview of the pedagogy of virtue, specific studies of prudence and loyalty, and insight into the use of narrative for vocation. Together, they opened a new pedagogical door.  

For example, since I believe that Bill Cronon is correct that history is best taught as story, historical narrative lends itself to the same vocational analysis that Douglas Henry finds in fiction. The different vantage points that he locates in Pillars of the Earth, Game of Thrones, and The Lord of the Rings apply beautifully to the way we consider history: “Charity takes tragic optimism—with its imperative to improve life here and now—and transforms it into genuine hope beyond human ingenuity. Charity takes cynicism—with its sobriety about the world’s scars, wounds, and ugliness—and transforms it into companionship and mercy.” In a history course, in which the narrative swings wildly back and forth between hope and despair, charity can help me and my students navigate these polarities. 

In her essay, Hannah Schell focuses on the virtue of loyalty for mentoring, but it seems just as useful in a history course because so much of history concerns the framing of loyalty and what it means to people across time and place. Thomas Albert Howard points to prudence as a virtue for the classroom in his essay concerning the four cardinal virtues, and history certainly offers a grand tour of prudence (and the lack thereof). Finally, Paul Waddell offers an overview of virtue in teaching with its calling to an “itinerary of hope.” He focuses on magnanimity, using Aristotle but moving us toward Aquinas in the way that virtue shapes us in education. 

Much more could be said of these excellent studies, of course. But what they opened for me was a different way into history courses that could meet my students in their stresses and struggles. In the human stories that I tell, virtue can connect us to persons from the past and form our callings in the present. In studying the past, we find both stories of charity and the need to exercise charity. We find the complexities of loyalty as well as a call to loyalty in our own communities. Prudence can be judged in hindsight even as it calls us to find wisdom as we look ahead. We form magnanimity in relating to the dead that affects our friendships and families. 

Whereas NetVUE started my teaching of the virtues, my children have helped me teach them with greater nuance. Kathleen and Peter do not see the world like I do. They both have autism, and they experience everything differently. As I try to guide them toward virtue, I find that I must be flexible, understanding, patient. I must enter their world to point them toward courage, wisdom, moderation, and justice. In this respect, I have learned about virtue from them, and they have shaped the way I teach. 

In my upcoming four posts, I will explore the four cardinal virtues—prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—through my children’s perspective. They will be my guides along the way. As I have tried to translate virtue to them, they have translated it back to me through their own unique view of the world. I hope that it will be an interesting and useful window for others as well.  

Martin Holt Dotterweich serves as director of the King Institute for Faith and Culture at King University in Bristol, Tennessee, where he is also professor of history. He is a NetVUE Faculty Fellow, having been a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar, and he contributed to the forthcoming Scholarly Resources volume Called Beyond Ourselves. His work calls him to an emphasis on vocation both in the classroom and the community; his children continue to shape his understanding of vocation. For other posts by Martin, click here.

Author: Martin Dotterweich

Director, King Institute for Faith and Culture Professor of History, King University

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