To be a student is to seek oneself to seeking knowledge. As with any activity, being a good student requires certain virtues, or, to put the point negatively, it is harder to acquire knowledge without certain traits of character. Abundant natural intelligence does not guarantee the successful pursuit of knowledge. Uncultivated and unguided, it might just laze or wander. Or, it could abet sophistry, creating specious concepts and systems of ideas for fun or some unworthy goal. So what might the student’s virtues be?
Curiosity: the desire to find out the truth of the matter. Plainly, if we do not desire to learn, we won’t be so fond of waking each morning and doing the hard work of inquiry.
Devotion: loving the activity of learning, or what sociologist Max Weber called the “strange intoxication” of the scientist who knows that the “fate of his soul” depends on coming to the correct idea. And we cannot be devoted to finding answers only to the questions that are asked, but also to those questions whose apparent triviality leaves them unasked. This will prevent orthodoxies from jelling. If we never want to stop — that is, if we understand that our current answers are provisional — then we will not confuse the popularity of an opinion with its veracity. It may be that what sounded like music was mere sound and fury.
Charity: the assumption of good intentions. If someone makes an argument, and he is not running for Congress, we should take him to be making it because he thinks it is true, rather than because it will earn him money or power. We should not, therefore, attack the characters of people who think strange things. This is true even if we have good evidence that our interlocutor is the mercenary lackey of a lying demon. Attacking people prevents us from engaging with the argument’s substance and considering whether it is true in part. We should also do what a friend of mine termed “steel-manning.” Instead of throwing flames at scarecrows, we should dispute the tightest version of our opponent’s case, for the same reason we should not attack him personally: Otherwise, we will not discover what is correct about his actual point.
Courage: overcoming fear. It is always difficult to disagree, because ideas are personal. They, along with things to which we cannot assent, comprise our identities. And they might be wrong. We should therefore follow Aristotle, who describes his discomfort at introducing an argument contrary to one of Plato’s: “Though we love both the truth and our friends, reverence is due to the truth first.” This is hard, particularly when the friend disagreed with is an especially close friend. But it is crucial for the student’s vocation, and also for friendship itself: We shouldn’t let those we love languish in illusion.
I go through this exercise because I think it’s a popular view that professors ought only to dispense information and facts. Of course, they may grade papers and chasten us for a weak argument or a piece of misused evidence. But, in my experience, very little is said, in classes or in the public statements of Yale’s leaders, about what differentiates a good from a bad student — about, in other words, why someone would employ a weak argument or misuse evidence in the first instance.
Now, the Yale Blue Book says that students should learn how to “think critically and creatively.” Perhaps this statement reintroduces rather than answers the question of what makes a good student — a good user of the intellect. But to the extent that it gives an answer, it gives an incomplete one, because it does not demand that we consider the answers of our peers and, especially, of the best of students past. It asks us to think with skepticism, rather than the proper mix of skepticism and charity. Charity is different from submission. Rather than mere acceptance, it demands that respect, in the form of an honest attempt at apprehension, be given to the best answers of history’s greatest minds. Smith and Marx thought a lot more about political economy than we have. Maybe they got things wrong. It is arrogant, not to mention foolish, not to give their thought the thorough consideration its complexity and care merit.
Learning is never finished, so we have to prepare to do it tomorrow. Just as a professor teaching 19th-century Germany would have failed his students had he not mentioned Bismarck, so too does any professor fail his students if he permits them to be incurious, uncharitable, lazy and cowardly. We should hold our teachers accountable for both sorts of tasks, as they should hold us accountable for failing to absorb the lessons of either.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com .