Gerrard speaks on virtue, its necessity, how it can be taught to students

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean of the Faculty Steve Gerrard led a philosophical discussion on Saturday in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. The hour-long function, part of the Spring Family Weekend activities, addressed questions concerning the nature of virtue and its ability to be taught at Williams.

Gerrard, roving around in the front of the hall as if in a classroom, began his presentation with the first scene from the Platonic dialogue Meno, in which the young and ambitious Meno asks Socrates: “Can virtue be taught?” Gerrard quickly turned to the medium-sized audience, composed almost solely of parents visiting the campus for the weekend, and asked them to make a list of virtues. The list was certainly a broad one,including a sense of justice, the ability to forgive, a sense of humor and the ability to trust and be trusted.

Gerrard continued to lead the discussion by asking how these virtues could be put together, and how they could be taught coherently. Combining his experiences as a new parent and a teacher, Gerrard said he recognizes the critical role a college plays in the development of a virtuous student, especially a college like Williams.

“When I asked my Philosophy of Education class what kind of school could teach virtue, a student responded: ‘A small liberal arts college in rural Massachusetts.’ And it’s obviously not Amherst. There are no virtuous people at Amherst,” Gerrard said, speaking from his own experience as an Amherst graduate.

Gerrard then referred to a handout that he had distributed to the audience. Three quotations were printed on the sheet, one from David Hume’s Enquiry, another written by President of the College Harry C. Payne for the re-accreditation report, and a third from Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. He used these quotations to direct the discussion toward questions concerning a classical education.

Disagreement arose in the audience when the excerpt from Nussbaum’s book was brought into the discussion. Her call for “Socratic” education executed with a “pluralistic” toolbox, caused several members of the audience to express disdain for her cultural relativism. Others disagreed, noting that the Socratic approach was the primary thrust, but that in today’s world, you must listen to try to understand others’ perspectives. Gerrard seemed to delight in the level of debate.

Gerrard turned to Payne’s piece, which was a short statement of Williams’ mission. He found an interesting tension residing in the ideas expressed a tug of war between the academic virtues of careful research and close reading and the character-oriented virtues of being able to listen empathetically and respectfully.

Gerrard asked the audience to make another list, this time asking for skills that would be needed to teach tolerance and respect. The parents responded quickly, calling for patience, empathy, judgment, and so on. Gerrard took this list in conjunction with the first and began to move toward a conclusion.

“I take the Socratic method seriously,” he said, “and its first step is always meant to get everyone’s feelings out in the open.” But Gerrard added emphatically that the method is based on careful logical argumentation and criticism. The feelings and original thoughts are important, but they must be subjected to strong criticism.

“This is what Williams tries to foster and nurture,” he said. “My view is that true respect for others and other cultures does not come about with a mere exchange of feelings. When differences between cultures show themselves, one can say ‘we’re both right’ or one can say ‘I understand where you’re coming from, but I’m still right.’”

Gerrard says he sees only one plausible answer. “At the end of the day, we have to believe in Truth and we have to believe in the Good, and we have to fight for what we believe in. We have to ask these questions concerning virtue and what is right. And this is our job as teachers.”

When asked about the role of the curriculum in this ideal, Gerrard recalled Robert Hutchins, the legendary educator and president of the University of Chicago in the first half of the century: “The role of the teacher is not just to pass knowledge on to the student. Students are not simply blank vessels; it is a real interchange, a Socratic dialogue, between student and professor.”

Gerrard recognized that the Socratic form, even after revisions for the pluralistic world of today, cannot be absolutely effective at all points in the curriculum. In responding to a question concerning its use in biology and physics classes, Gerrard highlighted the importance of “getting things right: of a careful experimental methodology. We are looking for a balanced curriculum that teaches all of these virtues.” But the implications of the question were clear.

Paul Crowley, a parent and active participant in the discussion, enjoyed himself thoroughly. “I felt privileged to be ‘in class’ with a great philosophy professor.” He found Gerrard’s values appealing. “The Socratic method that Gerrard was talking about, a method where we can make room for everyone and encourage criticism, is a good one to use to move toward, and it’s a hard word to say these days: Truth.”

While it is true that not every class can be conducted in the same way, Crowley said, “Look at what happened when [Gerrard] used the Socratic method today. It worked. It drew people out and it was a great event.”

Gerrard paraphrased the Talmud to complete the discussion. “‘It is the job of the teacher to comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable.’ I believe that this is true. And I believe in Truth.”