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June 7, 2021

UCI Podcast: Why curiosity, integrity, humility and tenacity contribute to a good life

UCI’s Anteater Virtues Project teaches students four core intellectual virtues

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Cultivating core intellectual virtues can help anyone — not just college students — develop habits of mind that enable them to act with empathy in a chaotic world and to decipher the truth in an internet landscape littered with misinformation. At UCI, students can hone these virtues through the Anteater Virtues Project, an online course created by Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Duncan Pritchard.

In this episode of the UCI Podcast, Professor Pritchard discusses the benefits of inculcating these four intellectual virtues, and how they can even help students succeed academically, regardless of what they’re studying.

In this episode:

Duncan Pritchard, UCI distinguished professor of philosophy

Anteater Virtues Project, an initiative led by Professor Pritchard to teach UCI students the core intellectual virtues of curiosity, integrity, intellectual humility and intellectual tenacity

Center for Knowledge, Technology and Society, a new center dedicated to applying epistemology to technological and societal issues

Fostering Anteater Virtues: New campus-wide curriculum aims to develop character and lifelong curiosity,” an article published by the UCI School of Humanities about the Anteater Virtues Project

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Intellectual virtues may seem like the stuffy ideas of ancient times, but cultivating the core values of curiosity, integrity, humility, and tenacity can help people thrive today. And during this era of pandemic misinformation, these virtues can help decipher the truth. How does society benefit when we nurture these intellectual virtues? And how does UCI’s Anteater Virtues Project help students thrive, no matter what they’re studying?

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski. And you’re listening to the UCI Podcast.

Today, I’m speaking with Duncan Pritchard, who is a distinguished professor of philosophy at UCI and the director of the Center for Knowledge, Technology and Society. He’s also the director of the Anteater Virtues Project.

Professor Pritchard, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.


Great to be here. Thanks for having me.


So you’ve created this online course, the Anteater Virtues Project for UCI students, and it focuses on four core intellectual virtues — curiosity, integrity, intellectual humility and intellectual tenacity. But the value of these virtues extends beyond students. So for people who are not in college or they already graduated college, why is it worth it to try and study and internalize these virtues?


These intellectual virtues, they’re a subset of a broader class of virtues. Going back to ancient Greece, in fact, although you find similar sets of virtues, Eastern traditions as well, the idea is that these character traits are crucial to a good life, a life of flourishing, as it’s known, or eudaimonia, the Greeks called it. So this isn’t a good life in the sense of, you know, a happy, happy life necessarily, but a life like a worthwhile life, a life of living the sort of the best life you can live, sort of thing. And the intellectual virtues, they’re just the intellectual aspect of this. There are moral and practical virtues, too. But the thought is there are certain kinds of character traits, like the four that you just mentioned, the four that we’re focusing on, which are especially important to human flourishing.

So the idea is that they’re practically useful. So they’re the most transferable skills that you could ever hope to have, whatever problems or challenges you face in your life, whatever subject matters you’re studying, or subject matter you’re engaging with at work — these things will be practically useful. But the thought is that they’re more than just practically useful. They’re useful for their own sake. They’re good things to have for living a good life. And what we’re trying to do at UCI is focus specifically on the intellectual virtues, because we think that they’re the ones that are most essentially tied to learning.


These virtues are essentially part of learning not just what to think, but how to think.


Yeah, absolutely. That’s really key. We increasingly have quite a narrow view of education, where we’re just sort of teaching people a very quite specific set of facts and expertise, very subject-matter-orientated. And obviously there’s a place for that. If you want to learn engineering, there are lots of things which are specific to engineering you need to learn in order to be an engineer. And if you want to learn biology, there are lots of things specific to biology that you need to learn. But there are certain kinds of general learning strategies that you really have to internalize if you’re going to be the person who will flourish intellectually. And that’s what the intellectual virtues are about. They’re not specific to any subject matter. Although, as it happens, philosophers, we’ve ended up being the ones pushing the case for them. But lots of people, lots of different walks of life — educational theorists and psychologists, and so on — lots of people see the merit of these traits, a special value. And there value precisely lies in the fact that they’re not narrow, they’re not specific to any particular task or subject matter or anything like that. They’re entirely general intellectual traits.


Let’s break these down a little bit and look at the four of them in a bit more detail, starting with curiosity. What does that mean? And how do we apply that to our daily lives?


We chose all four because we thought they were core to a university intellectual mission. And curiosity is probably the most obvious one on that list, in that regard, because any kind of intellectual endeavor, you need to have curiosity. And we’re thinking of curiosity as a virtue is more than just, for example, asking questions or something like that. It’s a certain kind of character trait where you’re asking the right questions in the right kind of way. This is one thing that we cover in the course. All the virtues, and the intellectual virtues are no different, they lie between two vices: a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. So a vice of not having enough of it and a vice of having too much of it. And curiosity is the same as that. So you can be overly curious, you can ask questions which are irrelevant. You can ask pointless questions, and so on. And you can also have the vice of deficiency, where you’re just not curious at all. And part of what it is to master the virtue of curiosity is to have that drive to find things out, but to have it in a proportionate way and to be responsive to the things that you need to be responsive to in order to reach your intellectual goals. This is what’s called the golden mean. It’s navigating a way between these two vices. And that’s how you master a virtue.


So what about integrity? Is it possible to have too much of that?


You know, that’s a really interesting question. So some people worry that something like integrity isn’t quite a virtue for that reason, because virtues lie between two vices. But I think to think like that is to equate integrity — which is quite a sophisticated trait, I think — with something a bit more pedestrian, something like honesty. Probably can’t have too much of honesty, if honestly just means saying the truth, anyway. But integrity is more sophisticated than that. I think it’s a trait about how you treat others, about how you treat ideas. I’ll give you an example. We live in very much a social media, a Twitter age. And I think one of the things you see there a lot when people engage with one another, they don’t engage with each other in good faith. They misrepresent other people, knowingly misrepresent them. They try to twist their words. They try to take their words out of context and so on. And I think part of what it is to have intellectual integrity is not to do that. It’s kind of like a duty to yourself, right? So it’s a kind of honesty, but it’s also a kind of honest and open dealings with others.

The traits that underlie that you can have them to excess. You could be pedantic, nitpicking, and so on. That wouldn’t be a sign of having excessive amounts of integrity, it would just be a sign you’ve got the vice of excess here. The virtue is sort of being proportionate in this, not just drilling down on details for their own sake, not being nitpicking for their own sake, pedantic, but trying to be charitable. So on the one hand, don’t misrepresent people, but don’t try to represent people in an authentic way to the extent where in a sense you’re also misrepresenting them. And I think that’s where integrity lies.

So I think this is quite important the way we teach it. It isn’t just about you. So one way to think about integrity is just a kind of honesty, or something just about your own dealings with it, your attitude to yourself. But it’s also, I think, important to think about other people and how you deal with them in an intellectual way, how you have respect for others, respect for their opinions, dealing with people, charitably, and so on, trying to understand where they’re coming from, understand their reasons, and so on. We treat all of those things as being part of what it is to have intellectual integrity. Of course, in a university context, we also tie this into issues about academic misconduct and plagiarism and so on because there’s a practical side to this. One has to learn what it is to avoid plagiarism and so on when you’re a student. But we try to build that into a broader moral about what is it to have integrity.


Well, and what about intellectual humility? What does that mean in this context?


We’ve picked humility, intellectual humility and intellectual tenacity, together because we think they make an interesting pairing. Intellectual humility, I think, is often misunderstood. I think a lot of people might think of humility as a kind of downgrading of oneself. It’s like a lack of intellectual self-esteem or something like that. That’s not how we’re thinking of it. As a virtue, intellectual humility is very much related to these traits I just mentioned with integrity and that’s not an accident. All the intellectual virtues that are interrelated.

To be intellectually humble is to be aware of one’s limitations, intellectual limitations, and therefore not to be dogmatic or overestimate one’s abilities. But it’s also to have an openness to others in one’s dealings with others. So receptiveness to other people’s ideas, not just to be dismissive of them. And I think it reveals itself in a lack of intellectual arrogance. Arrogant people don’t listen to others. Sometimes even if you know more about something than someone else, there’s something to be said for having respect for their opinions and listening carefully to them and engaging with them, and not being haughty about it, even if you know that you do know more about this. And I think this is intellectual humility on display. What it reveals is a love for the truth, a care and concern for the truth, and thereby a care and concern for reasons, and for other people and other people and their reasons — other people as intellectual subjects.

We paired this with tenacity because I think a lot of people might think antecedently that humility and tenacity are sort of in tension with one another. So tenacity is about having a kind of grit, conviction and so forth, seeing things through. And I think it’s tempting to think that to be humble is to lack conviction. And conversely, to have conviction, to have grit, is not to be humble. One of the things we try to do is show how actually these two things go together. You can have conviction and follow through on your opinions and so forth, whilst at the same time, respecting the opinions of others. Respecting other people’s opinions, listening to others, having an intellectual care for others, is not the same thing as giving up your own opinions. And I think that’s very important. I think it’s something that’s actually gotten lost in the sort of social media age, where it’s often seen that the mere fact that you’re listening to someone engaging with someone is seen as a kind of abnegation of your convictions. So that’s why we paired them. We think, especially in intellectual contexts, it’s important for people to see how these two virtues can co-exist with one another.


Well, it seems like a lot of these essentially compel a person to slow down and consider both their own reasons for believing something and the reasons someone else might believe in something. And these are things that we could really use in society at large, to help us overcome some of the more challenging situations that we face today, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, which we’re more than a year into it and, and folks are getting vaccinated. But there’s still a lot of misinformation about both the COVID-19 pandemic and about vaccines themselves. So what do you think these virtues could do to help us overcome and sort of finally beat this pandemic?


I think they’re certainly necessary for dealing with misinformation in the information age. This is one of the problems we face in contemporary society that we’re susceptible to groupthink, we’re susceptible to silos of thought, and so forth, where people aren’t listening to one another, people are arguing past one another. And sometimes it doesn’t really matter that much, not a lot hangs on these things. But other times things of great consequence hang on it. And I think when it comes to issues like vaccine takeup, and masks during a pandemic, and so forth, misinformation can become quite dangerous.

And you need the virtues to navigate this environment. I mean, that’s how you as an individual deals with it. I think we also need structural solutions to these problems. But you as an individual, it helps you to deal with it because as you say, it helps you to slow down. It helps you to reflect. It creates habits of thought. I mean, that’s essentially what the virtues are. They’re character traits, which means that over time they become second nature. They’re habitual ways of responding. And when they’re working well, you don’t even need to think about them. So you’ll just find yourself reflecting on the evidence given, not just simply responding emotively to something someone said, or being swept up by the rhetoric, or what have you. But thinking more carefully about, well, what are the reasons for this? How does this relate to other things that I believe, and so forth?

And also, for example, intellectual humility will kick in here. When one finds oneself having very strong convictions about things, to reflect on whether they’re warranted. Obviously we’re fallible creatures. We make mistakes. We’re apt to be taken in by information that we read. It’s important when you’re dealing with misinformation to evaluate that information horizontally and not just vertically. So what that means is you not just verify it by going to the same source or similar sources to verify it, but by going outside the source and getting independent verification. It’s very easy not to do that. Right. It’s very easy, especially in a social media type context to get your verification by looking at the very same people who are telling you the original thing, so you’re not really going outside the loop. To be intellectually virtuous is to be alert to those kinds of factors. And so I think for an individual level, it’s one way of insulating yourself against the dangers of misinformation.


Well, and so UCI students have the opportunity to dive really deeply into these virtues, through the Anteater Virtues Project. So tell us the backstory there, what prompted you to launch that project?


Well, it’s something I’ve been interested in for a while. I mean, more than that, I’ve seen firsthand how it’s worked in educational projects, not at the university level, but in schools and in prisons actually. So one project I led back in Scotland was a running program for bringing the intellectual virtues into prison education. And it had massive effects. We were completely taken aback by the effectiveness of this program. In fact, Scottish prison education now is completely different as a result, it was so effective. Seeing how lives could be transformed by having a different sort of educational input into them. And similar things have happened in schools. Actually here in Long Beach, there are two schools which have been founded on intellectual virtue lines, and they’re regarded as sort of cutting edge educational establishments.

And it just struck me. I was amazed no one had tried to do this, given it’s been so effective in schools and in other educational contexts, that it hadn’t been done at a university level. So people have brought the virtues into university curricula, but the actual idea of just focusing on the intellectual virtues, that’s what interested me, because it seemed to me that’s where you get the biggest payoff. You could actually sort of bring that in right across the curriculum. So they’re not just learning it within the humanities or within a philosophy degree or something like that, but whatever their major, whatever they come to study, that they’ll get to engage with intellectual virtues and think more generally about what’s an education for. And so that’s what excited me. And that’s what led to this project.


It sounds in some ways like a way to push back against the trend that we sometimes see of education focusing solely on specific career outcomes. Someone goes to college in order to get a diploma so that they can get a job and earn money. But getting an education is about more than that. And the school that you’re in, the School of Humanities, focuses a lot on growing people as intellectuals. So why do you think it is important to have this balanced approach of learning how to think and learning about the humanities while also gaining these career skills?


Yeah, I think it’s absolutely crucial. To be fair, I think most educators, whatever their discipline, they understand this — that education isn’t just about teaching your subject matter, but it’s about developing the student as a person, developing their intellectual character. But it’s a case of communicating that to the student. I think it’s not always obvious to them that that’s really what we’re doing. I mean, they see courses on their transcript. They see grades. I think it’s very natural to think, well, the education is just what I get in the classroom when I’m doing the courses for my major or something like that. And I think this is where the arguments we have to make for the humanities really — they’re very straightforward when you think about them. We need to see that really the humanities, although it is a division of the university, it is kind of at the heart of a university education. So what is it to develop someone intellectually, as a person — that’s primarily, it seems to me, the concern of the humanities. So even if it occurs in all educational contexts, it seems that we’re doing it in the most direct way.

That’s why, if you can take a project like this and embed it within the curriculum more generally, you can have a large impact. I mean, this is where I think I see what we’re doing here. Actually, it’s kind of making explicit what is really already implicit. The UCI education is about developing intellectual character. It’s just, we don’t cast it that way. We don’t present it that way. And I think this project ought to be a way for students to see that — make it explicit to them. That’s what we’re doing. Hopefully by making explicit to them, be more effective in that aim, they’ll be more effective learning how to develop themselves intellectually because they’re aware of what that means — that this is what an education is all about. So I think that’s where the humanities fits in here. We need to think of humanities teaching, I think, not just the teaching that goes on in humanities courses, but as something which is at the heart of any good educational system at this level.


And you’ll be actually researching and testing to see how this Anteater Virtues Project affects students academically. So you’ll be studying that. But what exactly will you be examining as you’re looking at that?


We did a pilot study last year before the COVID pandemic put everything on a hiatus, and we got some very good results there. What we’re looking for is we want to see how students respond. And what you’re looking for really is certain kinds of improvements and seeing how those improvements manifest across all the different demographics. I mean, one thing that’s quite well known in studies of this kind is that any educational intervention will tend to have some positive effects. I mean, just by virtue of it being an educational intervention. But what you tend to find, those effects can be quite small, and you may find that it’s just students who ordinarily do well, who disproportionately benefit from them. And students who generally don’t do quite so well don’t benefit.

And one thing we were looking for and found in the pilot study is actually the results, they were quite significant, but also they were stable across all demographics. I mean, not just the demographics of whether it’s male and female, or demographics academically in terms of their performance or in terms of whether there were underrepresented minorities, for example. So that’s what we’re looking for. Because we want to show this is effective and it’s effective really for everyone. And that’s what we found in the pilot. And we have a second study, a bigger study. We’re taking more students. This one will have more of a focus on comparing STEM students with humanities students and seeing what the comparison is there. So we are quite excited about that. It’ll be a much more extensive study.


That’ll be exciting to see those results when they come out. So, but for someone who is not a college student, and they’re not able to take this Anteater Virtues Course, but they really want to start embedding these virtues into their life more, how should they get started?


Well, it certainly helps if you know what they are, if you can identify them. That’s obviously one thing that we do in this project, because I think they, as I said, with some of these virtues — integrity, humility and so on — they’re a bit more nuanced than their titles might at first appear. But the general idea is a straightforward one. You need to be around virtuous people. And I think all of us are around such people. They may be teachers or family members or people in one’s community. I think usually we can spot them. People who, if they have good character, they’re good people to learn from. I mean, this is how, going right back to ancient Greece, Confucius said similar things: by being around people like that, one can learn to emulate them. Their virtues sort of rub off on you. I mean, by the same token, you have to not try to emulate people who clearly have the vices, even though some of those vices might be, in some respects, attractive traits, might be fun traits to have, for example. But one has to fight against the urge to emulate them.

And it’s not just people as well. I think one of the things you can learn from great works of literature, for example, even from films, I think, is getting to know certain kinds of characters in those, and seeing how a very sophisticated interplay of people and their development. You can learn a lot about what it is to be virtuous just by witnessing the character development in that way. I think it’s better if it’s actual real life people that you’re engaging with. But I think that’s one of the things literature can contribute to intellectual development because it can make vivid certain character traits, and make us see the value and see the disvalue of other kinds of character traits and so on.


So don’t forget the literature classes and other humanities courses from your high school, your college days. Bear those in the front of your mind.


Absolutely. And in fact, this is one of the next phases for the Anteater Virtues. We’re hoping to embed it in a transformative text type project. So we’ve got our modules on the virtues, but we’ll also have modules devoted to contemporary texts, quite a diverse range of authors as befitting, such a diverse campus that we are. So getting people through literature to think about some of these ideas.


Professor Pritchard, thank you so much for joining me today on the UCI Podcast. 


Thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.