Building Character and Aspiring to Academic Excellence

What would Aristotle say about employability skills?

Employability Skills: In addition to specific job-related training, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College has identified core abilities that are transferable and go beyond the context of a specific course. 

  • Communicate Effectively
  • Work Cooperatively and Professionally
  • Think Critically and Creatively
  • Solve Problems Effectively
  • Value Individual Differences and Abilities
  • Demonstrate Personal Accountability
  • Demonstrate Community and Global Accountability

Aristotle would be captivated by the 7 employability skills (from now on known as ES) that are the fundamental and guiding principles of academia that inspire our students to build their character and to aspire to academic excellence. The Greek word for “ethics” is “ethos” which translates into “character”; and the Greek word for virtue is “arete’” which means “excellence.”  For Aristotle, intellectual virtues are achieved primarily though the process of education.  The ES are the goal and/or purpose of the good life, the fulfilled life, the responsible life, and the balanced life.  In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, happiness is the good life we seek for its own sake by living the virtuous life, the pursuit of excellence, which in turn establishes the breadth and depth of our character.            Secondly, the ES are designed to help students reflect upon and pursue Aristotle’s “Golden Mean” between their individual fulfillment and societal obligations, and between their inner harmony and outer harmony with others and the learning environment.    These ES are the practical wisdom students acquire through life long education so as to make decisions in accordance with their own understanding of the good life.   In turn, in pursuit of the virtuous life, students have access to the deepest possibilities of personal fulfillment, individual happiness, and an opportunity to live the good life.

Aristotle distinguishes between two dimensions of virtue: Moral and Intellectual virtue. By means of practice and habit, the ES become moral virtues when the student strives to act in a certain way.  They are moral virtues if one seeks a mean or balance between extremes. Specifically, four of the seven ES  highlight  the mean or balance between the self and others or the environment:

1. Demonstrate personal accountability: recognize an obligation to self and others for your decisions and actions.  “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others…he/she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” – Robert F. Kennedy;

2. Work cooperatively and professionally: apply effective work habits and attitudes within the learning environment.  – “Everything we do – our discipline, effort, meditation, livelihood, and every single activity we do from the moment we are born until the moment we die – we can use to help realize our unity and our completeness with all of things.” – Ane Pema Chodron;

3. Solve  problems effectively: provide information, analyze issues, and make decisions within a group environment. – “There is an important link between deep change at the personal level and deep change at the organizational level. To make deep personal change is to develop a new paradigm, a new self, one that is more effectively aligned with today’s realities. This can occur only when we are willing to journey into unknown territory and confront the problems we encounter.” – Robert Quinn;

4. Value individual differences and abilities: demonstrate respect for self and others through behaviors consistent with personal values, striving to live an ethical and principled life – “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all living beings, which are all part of one another and all involved in one another.” – Thomas Merton;

5. Demonstrate community and global accountability: give evidence that we are interconnected, dependent, and need each other for our global survival.  “A human being is part of the whole called by as ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein

Secondly, the ES become intellectual virtues if practical wisdom enhances one’s knowledge, reasoning, and understanding through the processes of education as exemplified by the remaining ES:

6. Communicate effectively: apply appropriate and effective writing, speaking, and listening skills in order to precisely convey information, ideas, and opinions. – “I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen, it doesn’t matter to what, whether to a bird, to the wind…to the rushing waters…in a dialogue with yourself…If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate we hardly listen to what is being said…One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence, in which the whole background is in abeyance, is quiet; then, it seems to me it is possible to communicate.” – Krishnamurti

and 7. Think critically and creatively: apply principles and strategies of purposeful, active, organized, and logical thinking. – “A  mind once stretched by a great idea or new understanding will never fully return to its original dimensions.” – William James.  Thus, for Aristotle, it is a human function to engage in “an activity of the soul which is in accordance with moral and intellectual virtues” which are fundamental to the seven ES.

Finally, Aristotle promotes ethics and wisdom. As previously mentioned, the Greek word, “ethos” from which we derive our term “ethics” simply means “character.”   For Aristotle, character is a set of dispositions or habits of thinking, feeling, and acting that make you who you are much like ES. Wisdom is a form of understanding, an understanding of how we ought to live as evidenced by ES number 6: “to value self positively – to demonstrate respect for self through behaviors consistent with personal values, striving to live an ethical and principled life,” and number 1: “to recognize an obligation to self and others for your decisions and actions.”

Aristotle’s character tradition in ethics maintains that the core of ethics is not about good actions, but rather about good people. It is not first and foremost about what we do, but is rather about who we are, as manifested in what we do. It is about settled habits of attitude and action that the ES challenge us to become.  It is important that for every course a student takes, the ES become the surrounding and permeating presence of our pursuit of excellence and of the truth, while shaping and forming our character.  As Aristotle reminds us, “It is easy to perform a good action, but not easy to acquire a settled habit of performing such actions.”

One thought on “Building Character and Aspiring to Academic Excellence

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