Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota awakens, nurtures, and empowers learners to ethical lives of service and leadership. At Saint Mary’s, students find in every classroom, whether in person or online, a relationship-driven, person-centered education. Through intense inquiry, students discover truths in the world and build character within themselves. Founded in 1912 and accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota enrolls 5,600 students at its residential undergraduate college in Winona and its Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs, based in Minneapolis with programs offered in Rochester, other locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and fully online. As a Lasallian Catholic university welcoming all students, Saint Mary’s offers respected and affordable programs in a variety of areas leading to bachelor’s, bachelor’s completion, master’s certificate, specialist, and doctoral degrees.
The university’s strategic plan “Building a Future Full of Hope 2025,” unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees in October 2019, introduced a university-wide initiative on character education and virtue formation. Comprising faculty and staff throughout the university, the Character Education Advisory Council, a new committee appointed to oversee this effort, is working to expand the integration of character and virtue throughout the academic curriculum and campus life.
At Saint Mary’s University, we understand that we live in a complex global society in which the ability to recognize ethical situations, apply critical thinking and sensitivity to decision making, and respond with goodness, is vital for the growth of our students. It is also vital for thick discourse with our faculty and staff and for the flourishing of our global community. In fact, equipping students with the skills to lead ethical lives is essential for a flourishing society. Ethics has long been a part of the Saint Mary’s University mission and the core of our mission since 2004, when we presciently undertook the mission to “awaken, nurture, and empower learners to ethical lives of service and leadership.” Providing a high-quality education that intentionally teaches ethics within an increasingly rich virtue context is what we do—it is who we are—at Saint Mary’s University.
Ethics is about goodness. It is about what it means to be a good person and how to live a good life. A common misperception regards ethics as simply a list of rules. Yet, there is also a richer, deeper way of thinking about ethics, which seeks an understanding of what will allow one to flourish as a person, become more resilient, and contribute to the common good. Each of these terms is incredibly important to understand for the way in which we define them will allow for a more in-depth engagement.
A leader in character and virtue education, the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, offers this definition: “Human flourishing is the widely accepted goal of life. To flourish is not only to be happy, but to fulfil one’s potential.” Flourishing is thus a disposition rather than a state. In this view, moral goodness, or character, makes one more of who one is as a human being, rather than restricting the individual person. In this way the individual good and the common good “should work together harmoniously” and reciprocally. As an individual’s ethical behavior benefits society, so too “the common good embraces the sum total of all those conditions of social life which enable individuals, families, and organizations to achieve complete and effective fulfillment.
Further, as a particular approach to ethical living, virtue ethics is compatible with profound love and ultimate human flourishing as understood within the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and the teaching of the Catholic Church. It is of note that the other two main approaches to normative ethics have an over-reliance on rules (deontology) or utilitarian outcomes (consequentialism). As understood within the Catholic tradition, the virtues approach is predicated on a deep respect for the dignity of the human person and concern for the personal and collective flourishing of all people. Far from a set of mandates or situation-specific rules, this approach focuses on the internal formation of the person that finds its fullest expression manifested in externally good actions. It is about fostering habits of character that help people act justly out of love, for virtue is aligned with personal flourishing and the common good.
Saint John Baptist de La Salle, priest and founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (De La Salle Christian Brothers), revolutionized education in France and beyond. In addition to his considerable advancements in pedagogical theory and practice, he also fashioned an educational spirituality, in large part, by cultivating virtuous dispositions within his teachers by his own personal example and instruction. De La Salle understood the value of virtue: when his teachers nourished habits of goodness and excellence in themselves, they could better recognize and encourage them in their students.
In The Twelve Virtues of a Good Teacher, De La Salle called attention to the virtues that he believed to be most essential for educators. These virtues, three centuries later, continue to be foundational to the charism and ethos of Lasallian schools worldwide including at Saint Mary’s University. Ever since De La Salle first invited teachers into his home, treated them like brothers, and cared about their formation as human beings, character education and virtue formation have been an integral part of Lasallian life and practice.
The virtues approach has a long history dating back to the pre-Christian era of Ancient Greece. In fact, across time and history, nearly every society has been concerned with the flourishing of its citizens through an understanding of what constitutes the good life. Indeed, in a very clear and compelling manner, Plato and Aristotle offered a robust treatment of the subject. They agreed that virtue was the main ingredient of the good life and of personal happiness. Further, both Plato and Aristotle agreed on which virtues are fundamental. Through reason and observation of human nature, Plato defined the virtues as: sophia (wisdom), andreia (courage), sophrosune (self-restraint) and dikaiosune (justice). His student, Aristotle, extended the discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics. These ancient philosophers understood the relationship between the virtues and a flourishing individual and a flourishing society—one that also uniquely contributes to a flourishing democracy. In fact, according to Aristotle, happiness is “activity in accordance with virtue.” A flourishing society is simply inconceivable without virtuous individuals.
As previously indicated, virtues have global relevance because of the consistency with which they are valued across cultures and time, even if the particular expressions of them may differ by culture or era. For example, there has never been a culture that valued lying and cowardice just as no parent would desire his or her child to be foolish, intemperate, cowardly, or unjust. All cultures and faith traditions value similar fundamental character traits, and so it is not surprising, then, that research in this area has concluded that the virtues are consistent across religions and philosophical traditions.
Virtue in Context
A growing body of research shows a correlation between virtues and positive personal outcomes, such as resilience in adversity, success at school and in the workplace, subjective and objective measures of well-being, and a host of prosocial outcomes. Furthermore, employers display preference for job applicants with positive character traits. Thus, the link between flourishing and virtuous living that the ancients grasped through reason and observation has contemporary empirical support as well.
Individuals, however, do not come into the world with their character fully formed. An individual’s character is developed over time by learning about character virtues, following the good witness of others (e.g., family members and teachers), and practicing character virtues themselves—even then, it remains an individual choice to live virtuously. Indeed, we only become virtuous when we make the decision to act virtuously and become people of character. Even though it is the individual who becomes the virtuous person, schools can foster a supportive environment that reinforces virtuous living. Given all these reasons, we eagerly affirm that virtues are learned and schools have a responsibility to teach them, for “the ultimate aim of character education is not only to make individuals better persons but to create the social and institutional conditions within which all human beings can flourish.”
In the context of Catholic higher education, one might reasonably ask how the faith tradition intersects with the virtues approach. We view the virtue approach as a common point of entry whereby people of goodwill from different faiths and backgrounds within our educational community can participate with shared language and a common approach to the ethical formation of students. We are a diverse community of learners, and it is within a global society that our graduates will encounter ethical situations. Thus, our virtues approach is informed and enriched by our Lasallian Catholic identity, yet it operates on a platform of values shared by all cultures and faith traditions. People striving to practice virtues such as honesty, justice, and compassion can be found across the diverse community of cultures and beliefs represented at Saint Mary’s University.
Virtues are “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life.” Saint Thomas Aquinas understood the virtues to have an empowering quality, whereby inherent in each virtue is also the capacity to bring about morally good action. Thus, a person of character displays actions directed toward the good and possesses dispositions ordered toward the good that help make those actions possible.
Although there is no single definitive list of virtues, certain categories of virtues have special relevance to Saint Mary’s University. Given our Lasallian Catholic mission and identity, we begin our focus with three interacting sets of virtues: the Cardinal Virtues, the Theological Virtues, and the Twelve Virtues of a Good Teacher. Additionally, performance virtues, such as perseverance, resilience, and teamwork, are modes of engagement that enable the practice of the other virtues. All of these are especially suited to our context as an institution of higher education.
The Cardinal Virtues
The cardinal virtues are natural virtues in the sense that they can be acquired and developed through one’s own efforts. The four cardinal virtues are prudence (practical wisdom), temperance, courage (fortitude), and justice. Because virtue acts in accord with reason, prudence is of principal importance because it is most closely associated with reason and thus governs the other three cardinal virtues. The essence of each virtue is evident in the good to which it is ordered: temperance, toward the regulation of the concupiscible appetites; courage, toward the regulation of our irascible appetites; and, justice, toward what is properly due to achieve reasonable equity among persons. The cardinal virtues are foundational and comprehensive such that all other natural virtues can be understood as subsidiary to one of the cardinal virtues.
True virtue exists within the “golden mean,” that is, between the extremes of deficiency and excess. For example, virtuous courage is neither cowardice (deficiency) nor foolhardiness (excess). Determining the golden mean requires prudence; moreover, virtuous behavior typically necessitates that the other virtues act in symphony. Courage, for example, has been said to be the “form of every virtue at the testing point.” Thus, the virtues are deeply interrelated.
The Theological Virtues
The theological virtues are faith, hope, and love (charity), which are understood as supernatural virtues in the sense that they are gifts from God and are ordered to God. By responding to God’s invitation and through cooperation with grace, Christians practice these virtues such that they are “infused by God into the souls of the faithful.” The theological virtues elevate the cardinal virtues by orienting them more perfectly toward God, who is the perfect exemplar of all of the natural virtues. Whereas living out the cardinal virtues can help us attain some measure of natural happiness, our ultimate end—the supernatural eternal happiness of union with God—is only ever possible with God’s help. God exceeds our natural capacities by infusing within us faith, hope, and love and offering us knowledge of himself through revelation. The theological virtues enable us to achieve the happiness for which we were created—to achieve our true calling as human beings. In the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas:
And first of all, with regard to the intellect, there is added to us certain supernatural principles, which are grasped through a divine illumination, and these are the things we believe through the virtue of faith. Secondly, the will is ordered toward the end by way of a movement of intention, both as toward something which is actually possible to achieve, which is what hope is all about and (third) as ordered toward a certain spiritual union, through which the soul is in a sense transformed into that end, and this pertains to charity.
The Twelve Virtues of a Good Teacher
The Twelve Virtues of a Good Teacher as identified by Saint John Baptist de La Salle are: gravity, silence, humility, prudence, wisdom, patience, reserve, gentleness, zeal, vigilance, piety, and generosity. These specific virtues are elevated as a valuable part of our educational culture at Saint Mary’s University. They are integrated within the four cardinal virtues and also serve as a bridge between those broad virtues and our educational milieu, as they are exemplified in the teaching at Saint Mary’s University. Moreover, the practice of these virtues is not limited to teachers alone; we believe that everyone in our university community is called to adopt and practice these virtues.
Performance virtues are essential to academic excellence because they are competencies necessary for high-level achievement. They include virtues such as: determination, motivation, resilience, perseverance, adaptability, teamwork, confidence, and creativity. To be in service of the good that is perfective (not the apparent good), the performance virtues are to be practiced in tandem with the moral virtues. As stated by the Jubilee Centre, “All good programmes of character education will include the cultivation of performance virtues, but they will also explain to students that those virtues derive their ultimate value from serving morally acceptable ends.
Character education should be “intentional, organised, and reflective.” While virtues, the building blocks of good character, can be taught, they can also be caught and sought. Research shows that direct instruction, modeling, and lived experience are all necessary for virtue formation.
Virtues are Taught
The aspect of virtue formation most conducive to direct instruction is virtue literacy, which is an understanding of what the virtues are, how they are interrelated, and what their proper end is. With this foundation, then can begin the more sophisticated work of virtue reasoning, which involves thinking through and applying virtues to specific situations. The Jubilee Centre believes that this is possible in all subjects, although it may require greater creativity in some. Further, “Teachers should encourage ethical discussions and debate issues of morality, ethics and character that come up in their subjects in a critically reflective—as opposed to a didactic—way.” At Saint Mary’s University, we respect diversity of conscience. Moreover, we reject a rigid, unquestioned application of broad categories of virtue to complex and specific ethical situations as this would not suit university-level pedagogy. Thus, we encourage our faculty toward a sensitive, creative, and nuanced approach to teaching ethics with a special focus on the first principle of doing good and avoiding evil. In the words of the Jubilee Centre:
Good teaching is underpinned by an ethos and language that enables a public discussion of character within the school community so that good character permeates all subject teaching and learning. It also models commitment to the forms of excellence or goodness inherent in the subject matter.
Virtues are Caught
Students at Saint Mary’s University benefit from a nurturing educational environment where there is a commitment to the flourishing of the whole student by “Teaching Minds, Touching Hearts, and Transforming Lives.” The Lasallian charism, although palpable on campus, has traditionally been hard to adequately capture in words. To that end, the Five Core
Principles of a Lasallian School were put forward: faith in the presence of God, respect for all persons, inclusive community, quality education, and concern for the poor and social justice. These principles help to articulate the rich Lasallian cultural milieu of character formation. We desire to enrich the discussion of the Five Core Principles by understanding them in the context of higher education and by refining their expression for Saint Mary’s University. When properly understood, the Core Principles can provide guidance in prioritizing the direction of virtuous action. And the virtues, always at the core, provide the ethical framework necessary to live these principles.
Virtues are learned and lived across all dimensions of Saint Mary’s University including the classroom, residential life, athletics, and other co-curriculars. This includes mentoring by and interactions with and among all faculty, administration, and staff. Saint John Baptist de La Salle believed in the importance of role-modeling as evidenced by the care with which he mentored his teachers and his specification of the Twelve Virtues of a Good Teacher. Additionally, Saint Mary’s University participates with the international Lasallian network of schools, which strive to be examples of goodness in our world. This diverse and faith-filled Lasallian community is yet another layer of virtuous environmental context for our students. Thus, we whole-heartedly affirm that:
The process of being educated in virtue is not only one of acquiring ideas. It is about belonging and living within a community—for schools are, together with the family, one of the principal means by which students grow in virtue.
Virtues Are Sought
Provided with an educational culture that strives to model virtue and offers opportunities to practice and reflect upon virtue, students may increasingly experience their own inner stirring to pursue virtue. The hope is that virtue will be freely sought by students over time because they recognize its value and want to own and engage in their own character development. This is aided by opportunities provided by the university such as lectures, discussion groups, and service opportunities.
Saint Mary’s University is deeply committed to empowering students for ethical lives of service and leadership—for being people of integrity who bring goodness into the world. Our guiding framework is virtue ethics because of its unparalleled longevity, global relevance, empirical support, cross-cultural application and congruence with our Lasallian Catholic mission and identity. We intend that virtue ethics is taught in the classroom, caught within our rich Lasallian Catholic school culture, and sought because of the good example of others and ample opportunities for growth. The character education and virtue formation that we offer equips students to respond with wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice in the service of the common good and to the transcendent demands of an ethical life.