Form and Formation II: The Limits of Self-Help

Self-help literature has had an amazing shelf life. From medieval morality plays to Renaissance courtesy books to Victorian conduct literature to contemporary best-sellers, it pushes transformation while itself being continuously transformed. On Amazon today, anyone beginning a search for self-help will find 28 different categories for browsing. The S’s alone tell us volumes about our culture: Self-Esteem, Sex, Spiritual, Stress Management, Success. 

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Character and calling in a time of crisis

No doubt you have seen the advice, attributed to Mister Rogers’ mother, that we should look to the helpers in those times when the news is scary. As the frightening realities about the spread of the Covid-19 virus have unfolded over the last few weeks, there are also plenty of stories of heroes and heroines on the national and local level. Paying attention to their stories and especially to the virtues that they embody in this harrowing situation can be an opportunity for students to consider how the virtues intersect with calling. Here, I’ll mention two examples, but there are many others now just as there will be in the weeks and months ahead.

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The virtue of “still deciding”

In a previous post, I defended the “still deciding student” who, despite pressure to participate in a culture of assessment, for which specific, quantifiable outcomes—as simple in some cases, even, as the declaration of a major—purport to measure what it means to be educated, would still hold some measure of themselves back from subjection to the metrics of attainment.

The key to my defense is the notion that still deciding is a virtue. I am thinking about what Aristotle called a hexis (ἕξις). What is a hexis? Not, despite what the dominant tradition of interpretation in Western philosophy has said, a habit. Indeed, the identification of virtues as habits is a most unfortunate error, as the philosopher Joe Sachs has argued. For a virtue is not—cannot be—a mindless habit. Rather, a virtue is an active holding of oneself, already ready to recognize the unpredictable, yet opportune, moment for action. As such, the capacity to be still deciding is crucial to virtuous decision-making.

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