Saturday, 20 December 2014

Arts & Habits of an Educated Person: Behaviours Indicative of Self-Knowledge

Cory's habits are the preconditions for being able to effectively engage in the arts of expression, which in turn require a level of self-knowledge.  The structure that Cory provides allows us to reduce the foundations necessary for a liberal education and attainment of many generic graduate attributes to behaviours. This posting is the second part of a three post series. The first articles in the series is titled Arts & Habits of an Educated Person: Foundations for Liberal Education & Generic Graduate Attributes


As indicated in my last posting titled Arts & Habits of an Educated Person: Foundations for Liberal Education & Generic Graduate Attributes, I intend to dig into Cory’s habits and arts of an educated student and provide my interpretations. Although Cory stated them in text (not bullet points), I have teased them out and presented them as follows...
  • Habits of an educated person...
    • the habit of attention
    • the habit of submitting to censure and refutation
    • the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy
    • the habit of working out what is possible in a given time
    • the habit of taste
    • the habit of discrimination
    • the habit of mental courage
    • the habit of mental soberness.
  • and the following arts of expression...
    • the art of assuming at a moment's notice a new intellectual posture
    • the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts
    • the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms.
I would like to spend a little time on each of them first providing my interpretation and then offer an alternative phrasing to perhaps make them a bit more contemporary. Once again, I believe that it is worth while because attaining the objectives of both a liberal eduction and generic graduate attributes in Australia requires a foundation. Without a set of assumed abilities, practices, and skills, it is difficult to meaningfully develop curriculum and pedagogy with appropriate and realistic intent.


First and foremost a habit is a behavioural routine, which may be learned and unlearned. Many habits are unconscious, they have become so much a part of an individual’s normal pattern that they are executed without conscious thought. Unlike bad habits, the habits of an educated person are intentional outcomes of a formal university (or school) education. Others expect them to be evident in practice by an educated person and they help the individual behave in a critical, reflective, adaptable, and thoughtful way to learn and self-actualize. A habit is frequently the result of practice, as is fluency.

The Habit of Attention
We can take attention to be a behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. This is what we generally mean when we instruct somebody to “pay attention” or ask somebody for their “undivided attention.” It is notionally connected to vigilance, which we can think about in terms of sustained concentration. That is, it is the ability to maintain concentrated attention over prolonged periods of time. Inherent in the behavioural exercise of attention, is the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time on a physical item or a mental construct, while also selectively admitting (selectively filtering) other ideas into a span of attention for consideration. It would be hard to imagine an educated person being able to grapple with difficult concepts in the act of learning without having the ability to apply appropriate levels of attention for sustained periods to the matter at hand.

The Habit of Submitting to Censure and Refutation
Submission has a number of denotations, I believe though that in this case we ought to think about the notion of submission in terms of consent, which communicates a texture of willingness to submit with the intent of achieving some benefit. That is, consent implies an agreement to submit as an exercise of free will. Censure is a rather strong term that points to disapproval of others, while refutation speaks to an act in response to or in anticipation of censure. In our context we are referring the disagreement or disapproval of an idea expressed as part of an argument. Refutation is a formal element of rhetoric, which is one of the three foundational liberal arts that make up the Trivium.

Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement
CC BY (Click Graphic to Enlarge)
Refutation is the act of countering or disproving an argument or counterargument in a persuasive essay or speech. So, our educated person would be in the habit of making arguments, and consenting willingly to disapproval and then entertaining and anticipating a counter argument, which she or he will then develop a strategy to refute. The person posting the original argument will more effectively anticipate a counterargument and prepare a refutation by placing herself or himself in the position of the other person. These of course are the foundations of engagement in critical dialogue and thinking and reflective learning. And, as we will later read, are enabled through the "Arts of Expression."

Referring briefly to the habit of attention, it becomes obvious how important the "selective filtering" process is during the act of refutation. An effective counterargument is based on focusing attention on non-trivial flaws in an argument and are themselves not flawed in obvious ways. Filtering out distracting and irrelevant information and lines of logic is essential for this type of critical engagement.

The Habit of Regarding Minute Points of Accuracy
Accuracy is important to the educated person because of what it implies. The ability to regard or consider minute points of accuracy requires an understanding of what is being measured and how it is being measured. Successfully assessing accuracy allows the educated person to at least:
  • See through a false impression of correctness based on observable precision in order to detect flaws in logic that impact the correctness of an assessment, outcome, argument, or answer.
  • Determine, for the purposes at hand, an appropriate level of tolerance one should apply to the standard of accuracy.

Regarding, considering, and understanding the accuracy of a truth claim is a critical ability and behaviour. This is true as well for developing arguments based on evidence and considering the reasonableness and robustness of the truth claims that others might make. We expect that an educated person would as a matter of habit consider the accuracy of claims while determining the validity of an argument. Not to do so would almost certainly result in a level of intellectual sloppiness prohibiting rigorous learning, acts of original discovery, and effective practice.

The Habit of Working Out What is Possible in a Given Time
This habit is in part an important and useful application of the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy outlined above. Being able to accurately assess time commitments contributes to a range of other habits and represents a critical point for refutation. That is, being able to refute an argument based on the time related factors allows our educated person to...
See through a false impression of correctness based on observable precision in order to detect flaws in logic that impact the correctness of an assessment, outcome, argument, or answer.
Public Domain (Click Graphic to Enlarge)
 The geologic time spiral—
A path to the past, Public Domain
(Click Graphic to Enlarge)
In addition, and a little aside of the main point here, there are also practical and obvious advantages of having the capacity to reliably be on time for appointments. The educated person who works out how much time it takes to do things will be able to better contribute to a wide range of social activities including participation in collaborative activities and scholarship. Working out the amount of time it will take to accomplish a series of tasks to deliver particulate outputs with particular outcomes, requires at least the ability to:
  • Anticipate a future state and the impact that actions taken in the future will have on the environment.
  • Assess the current condition of the environment and how it will impact on the timely delivery of desired outcomes and outputs.
  • Anticipate the willingness, competencies, and capacities of others who may be enlisted to help achieve desired ends.
  • Prioritize efforts and order events to reach desired ends.
  • Accurately identify and estimate the appropriate characteristics that contribute to a desired end.
  • Anticipate potential modes of failure in a chain of events, assess likelihood, and prepare contingency actions.

Although we recognise that not all educated individuals manage time well, we would expect the individual to have a firm and sophisticated conceptual grasp of time.

The Habit of Taste
This is an interesting habit. In this context it would seem that taste ought to be taken as the habit of discerning the quality of a thing or behavior and forming an opinion accordingly. I assume then that an educated person would have the habit of “good taste.” This is all well and good, but in a pluralistic society or for those who travel and enjoy relationships in a diverse community, the habit of taste, must be accompanied with the ability to assess taste from multiple perspectives depending on the circumstances. This, along with the habit of discrimination of course strikes at the heart of a liberal education.

The Habit of Discrimination
Discrimination is the ability to distinguish between things. The observer might need to discriminate based on physical qualities that are qualitative or quantitative, aesthetics - as in a performance, or morality - such as right and wrong. The habit of discrimination is the act of making such distinctions. Discrimination implies the ability to observe the environment, identify differences between things and across time, make judgments, and to be able to classify things. The term discrimination has taken a rather specific meaning in modern speech, which is the unjust discrimination against others based on an unfair classification, which is not the intended meaning in our context.

The Habit of Mental Courage
Tiananmen Square
Stephen Hott CC-BY
Courage generally refers to the strength or fortitude to act, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. Mental courage for our purposes may refer to the courage to think differently, challenging common or dominant thought, engaging in the discussion even at personal or professional risk, and when appropriate doing so publicly with the knowledge that while submitting others to your censure and refutation, you must do the same. The habit of exercising mental courage is a necessary precondition for the growth of knowledge and pursuit of truth. And, as Kant suggests, it is necessary for enlightenment. For those in the academy, it represents the behaviors that academic freedom is intended to protect, and in its exercise represents the responsibly that all thinkers have to the public good.

The Habit of Mental Soberness
I believe that mental soberness in this case needs to be interpreted as an expression of reasoned seriousness and speaks to a level of disciplined thinking. It speaks to the type of thinking that is not impeded in a way that leads to taking an important topic, data, information, or knowledge too lightly or behaving in a glib or superficial manner. It also speaks to the ability to communicate with an appropriate attitude and level of gravity that befits a topic. When engaging in discussion on serious topics that have meaning, particularly if one is in a position of influence, soberness points to a level of fairness and truth. At the end of the day, I believe that acting regularly with mental soberness earns a level of trust.


An art can be thought of in terms of contributing to an overall ability to create an artefact through an act of artistry. It is an expression of abilities or mastery of a particular medium perhaps attained through training or some other educative process. At the center of our use of the term “Art” is the notion of an ability that is applied with something beyond skill, as in a habit, but requiring a level of creative expression that perhaps includes, but extends beyond technique. So, an art may be exercised as a habit, but requires much more nuance in its application. We may also suggest that works of art have the potential for impact that touches something in our humanity. One could argue that the habits outlined above are preconditions for being able to exercise the arts of expression.


Expression is communicating ones thoughts and feelings. Expressions can of course take many forms and make use of many media. The media and expression are intertwined and may effectively be inseparable. The mechanics of expression and their relationships to the media used, the intended message being communicated, and the desired affect and outcome may themselves be part of the expressive act.

To be honest, I am not entirely sure exactly why Cory chose expression as the critical art at the exclusion of others. It is of course through expression that others can observe us. The notions of being technology, information, digital, and media fluent is fundamentally tied to the art of expression. In an age in which the tools for mass communication and the potential of mass influence are readily available, the ability to effectively express oneself and the ability to engage with expressions becomes more critical than ever, pointing to the ever growing need for educated individuals, not just individuals who are well trained and skilled.

The art of Assuming at a Moment's Notice a New Intellectual Posture
The ability to assume a new intellectual posture speaks to more than just changing one’s mind.  It involves a change in attitude, perspective, rationale, and approach to a thing being considered. That is, it is more than shifting one's position on a continuum representing an intellectual construct, it is about modifying or creating a new conceptual model on which to shift.

The Art of Entering Quickly into Another Person's Thoughts
The ability to enter into another’s thoughts, speaks to the ability to place oneself in another’s mental frame both in terms of the logic of their thinking, assessing their motives, perceptions of their environment, the sophistication of their reasoning, critical capabilities, and disposition to reflection, but also having the ability to empathise with another and judge the relationships between logic and emotion. We can quickly see how self-knowledge plays an important role, while assessing the impact we have on ourselves and our interpretation of another’s thoughts as we enter them.

The Art of Indicating Assent or Dissent in Graduated Terms
This is that ability to express agreement and disagreement with an idea, action, artefact, or argument with nuanced variation. The ability reduces the impulse toward taking polar positions, ignoring subtlety in arguments and ideas, and partisanship. The ability to assent and dissent in graduated terms is essential to the idea of civil discourse and meaningful public debate. Without have the ability to do so, we cannot engage in discussions about how things exist in our common experience.

So, Cory is referring here to the arts necessary for effective expression of thoughts and feelings. There is a clear focus on being able to understand, appreciate, and adopt the perspectives of others. Although it is not explicitly stated, a review of the habits listed above indicates to me that they are the habits necessary for effectively and reliably practicing the arts of expression. This leads to the conclusion, that for Cory anyway, an educated young man or woman should be able to express oneself effectively. Which further implies, that the educated person must know what one thinks (in possession of self-knowledge) in order to express it. Which further implies that the education person must know how to think as a matter of habit.

Not entirely surprisingly, this is perhaps the shorthand definition for enlightenment as expressed by Immanuel Kant in “What is Enlightenment”and sits at the very definition of a liberal education.

While in the first posting in this series, Arts & Habits of an Educated Person: Foundations for Liberal Education & Generic Graduate Attributes I outlined why I think Cory;s arts and habits merit consideration, in the final posting of this series, Arts & Habits of an Educated Person: Alternative Phrasing,  I will rewrite Cory’s habits and arts to reflect a more contemporary language. I am guessing that I will not make substantive improvements in any but a few of the descriptions, but I do hope to make a contribution by describing them that lends to actually writing and implementing learning and teaching approaches that result in outcomes. That is, framing the foundations in a way that we can build on them, rather then framing our objectives in important and inspirational terms while largely ignoring that most learners need to engage in developmental activities to acquire the necessary arts and habits.


Eton Reform
From Defence of the Etonian system in reply to the criticisms of Matthew James Higgins (‘Paterfamilias’) and Sir J.T. Coleridge. Cf. DNB, v. 22, p. 488,  

Arts & Habits of an Educated Person: Foundations for Liberal Education & Generic Graduate Attributes

Arts & Habits of an Educated Person: Alternative Phrasing

Harvard College Writing Center: Strategies for Essay Writing

Creative Commons Licence
Arts & Habits of an Educated Person: Behaviours Indicative of Self-Knowledge by Ken Udas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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