“Learning Virtues,” David Brooks

This is a fascinating article from David Brooks about a Chinese and a Western approach to learning. He says, “The simplest way to summarize her findings is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally.” Note especially this,

You can look at the slogans on university crests to get a glimpse of the difference. Western mottos emphasize knowledge acquisition. Harvard’s motto is “Truth.” Yale’s is “Light and truth.” The University of Chicago’s is “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

Chinese universities usually take Confucian sayings that emphasize personal elevation. Tsinghua’s motto is “Strengthen self ceaselessly and cultivate virtue to nurture the world.” Nanjing’s motto is “Be sincere and hold high aspirations, learn diligently and practice earnestly.”

Another way of stating this is that American universities seem oriented toward a modern western epistemology, while the Chinese universities seem to represent an approach more oriented toward virtue epistemology. Perhaps Brooks is generalizing a bit too much, but if he is even mostly correct, the American universities could learn from their Chinese counterparts.

Aristotle on Virtue

In fact, however, arguments seem to have enough influence to stimulate and encourage the civilized ones among the young people, and perhaps to make virtue [excellence] take possession of a well-born character that truly loves what is fine; but they seem unable to stimulate the many towards being fine and good.

For the many naturally obey fear, not shame; they avoid what is base because of the penalties, not because it is disgraceful. For since they live by their feelings, they pursue their proper pleasures and the sources of them, and avoid the opposed pains, and have not even a notion of what is fine and truly pleasant, since they have had no taste of it.

What argument could reform people like these? For it is impossible, or not easy, to alter by argument what has long been absorbed by habit [_ethos_]….

Arguments and teaching surely do not influence everyone, but the soul of the student needs to have been prepared by habits for enjoying and hating finely, like ground that is to nourish seed. For someone whose life follows his feelings would not even listen to an argument turning him away, or comprehend it; and in that state how could he be persuaded to change? And in general feelings seem to yield to force, not to argument.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, X.9