Book Review: Virtuous Minds by Philip Dow

Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development by Philip E. Dow

I don’t know much about the author of this book except that he is a Cambridge Ph.D. and a school superintendent. But if the content of this book is any indication, I can make three probably inferences: he is a man of deep reflection, a man who loves to teach, and a man who loves his students. In these senses, he is a true philosopher.

The Bad

There isn’t really anything bad about this book. I will say that in the forward, Jason Baehr wrote that ‘this is the first book of its kind.’ I’ll just observe that this isn’t quite true. It was published in 2013, but I can think, off of the top of my head several books very similar to it of varying qualities: Habits of Mind, Love Your God With All Your Mind, Excellence, and Epistemology. I intentionally left out older or more academic treatments (which would extend the list into nearly two dozen books!)

The other issue I took with the book was that it didn’t, in general, use the Christian tradition’s language that already existed concerning intellectual virtue: wisdom, studiousness, intelligence, sanity, etc. Because of this, ‘curiosity’ was considered a virtue, when Aquinas considered it a vice closer to what we might call distraction (55-60). The material in the book is quite good and it’s okay to use and update terminology. But it was interesting that not even a nod was made to Aquinas’ terminology, particularly where the field already used one word to mean quite nearly the opposite of what it came to mean in the present book.

The Good

Wow, this was a great book for any educator, undergraduate student, parent, or pastor. Every chapter is well organized with its terms defined, examples of the titular virtue and its lack, as well as actionable steps to acquire the virtue. The virtues discussed are: courage, carefulness, tenacity, fair-mindedness, curiosity, honesty, and humility. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  1. “It has been said that a person’s character is forged, not in one dramatic moment but in the ledger of his or her daily work.” (30)
  2. “…the fruits of habitually careful thinking are deceptively mundane. Spaceships get to their destinations and back safely, offices effectively accomplish their goals because employees trust each other’s work, our relationships blossom, and our gardens bloom.” (38)
  3. “There is something deeply satisfying about completing a task, especially when that task included significant obstacles or hardships.” (44)
  4. And here’s one of the many great actionable steps, “So when you are tired and tempted to switch on the TV or surf the net, decide to open a book for a few minutes. When you are tempted to ignore a newspaper article because it will require too much mental energy, or because it appears to contradict your opinion, take the ten minutes required to read it thoughtfully.” (124)

Conclusion

While the book wasn’t a great deal of new information for me. It was delightful to read and discuss with my colleagues as a starting point for training our students’ in the habits of mind that will lead them to success and hopefully happiness.

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