Intellectual Virtues

On Pedagogy: Transmission and Revision

I’ve written a few posts that overlap with themes concerning education. But I think that, over all, good education has this main goal: it supports human happiness.

Of course, everything humans do is “for happiness,” just like every arrow is aimed at a target. But like arrows, decisions and processes can miss their mark. Education is no different. And just like how we do everything for happiness, we should make sure we define it happiness in terms of our specific nature as human beings. Happiness requires virtue (goods of the mind and soul), wealth (goods of the body and mind), and friends.

So, what makes education different from other activities of human happiness such as eating, sex, or meditation?

Education is Transmission

Education, perhaps more than any other domain of human activity relies upon the transmission of knowledge. This, is where people get confused. Knowledge is typically perceived as merely that which is accepted as true or mere cognitive content. But knowledge is actually more than this. The skills of civilization (virtues, customs, etc) constitute knowledge, attitudes and habits are learned, and one’s vision of the goal of humanity (hardly what many consider knowledge) is also a form of knowledge. Knowledge is certainly cognitive content, but it also includes “know-how,” bodily, emotional, social, and habitual information which can be difficult to put into precise words (because it is non-verbal in nature).

In this sense then, if the purpose of education is human happiness/flourishing and the nature of education is the transmission of knowledge and information it must be said that education is the transmission of knowledge that tends toward happiness in a way that tends toward happiness. Observe that while “getting a job” or “making money” are not the chief end of education, happiness includes have the goods of the body and therefore having money/food are part of the purpose of education. In other words, education is the transmission of tradition for happiness.

Education is Revision

But education cannot merely be the transmission of a settled body of information for several reasons: human beings find new knowledge, the world changes in ways that old knowledge cannot always anticipate, and human beings have different callings, personalities, and skills. Education must be attuned to the individuality of each person and to giving human beings the capacity for finding the limits of older knowledge in order to add to it, reapply it, and reformulate it for whatever present situation exists. In this sense, education must be personal.

But if education is in its nature personal and for the purpose of happiness, then it must be personal for the purpose of happiness. Education cannot be personal with respect to allowing tradition to die (for traditions survived a process of natural selection that makes them robust and even antifragile). On the other hand, traditions must be questioned for their veracity, effectiveness, and applicability. An example of this might be the tradition claiming that everybody in the medieval era believed that the earth was flat. I learned some version of that claim every year I took history. Then I found out that it was absolutely false using the research skills I had gained in high school English. Another tradition is going to college right out of high school. This tradition, while at one point, made tremendous sense for some people is treated as a gold standard of life advice (knowledge). It really should be questioned by students because schools won’t question it for them…the survival of many universities often depends upon this tradition remaining intact.

In this sense then, for education to be truly helpful for human happiness, educators (and students themselves) must aim to create a sense in students that while they should be grateful and try to benefit from the past, they must be willing to be independent of it in order to seek truth and virtue.


True education it seems has three elements:

  1. The transmission of knowledge and habits.

  2. The building up and equipping of individual persons for their unique circumstances in light of their personalities and potentials.

  3. The intended goal of human happiness.

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