Book Review

Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development By Philip E. Dow

Christopher Beckham
Philip E. Dow
Friday, February 28th 2014
Mar/Apr 2014

Philip E. Dow has written an engaging, thoughtful, and timely book titled Virtuous Minds. In this book Dow, a Cambridge-educated school administrator in Kenya, attempts to make a unique contribution to the field of character education, focusing on the traits of "virtuous thinking" or "intellectual character building." The thesis of his book is that before there can be virtuous action in life, there must first be virtuous thinking that precedes the action (22). The book then identifies the cardinal intellectual virtues and makes recommendations on how to acquire those virtues. Dow identifies the audience of this book as "students, educators, and parents" (16). I believe it also would be useful in a ministerial ethics or religious education class at the college or seminary level, and pastors could certainly gain much from it

It is structured around four main categories. First, it describes the intellectual virtues: intellectual courage, carefulness, tenacity, fair-mindedness, curiosity, honesty, and humility. Each chapter develops these ideas and explains their nature and character. Second, the book develops the ramifications of cultivating these virtues, proposing to define the fruits of a well-furnished mind. As Dow sees it, if we cultivate intellectual virtue, we accrue unmistakable benefits, which he enumerates as decreased suffering from the consequences of poor choices; increased enjoyment from good choices; the living of an interesting life; and finally, greater personal influence among our peers and more meaningful friendships (81-109). Third, Dow provides a "road map" of sorts’explaining just how it is that virtuous thinking is to be cultivated (113-24). Finally, Dow provides some helpful appendices: a book study guide with critical thinking questions for the chapters; curricular guides; and other documents from academies and schools where this plan has been put into place, including a sample syllabus for teaching the virtues; and even a charter school petition for a school built around the quest for teaching the intellectual virtues.

There are many merits to the thesis of the author. Several Bible verses support his contention that virtuous thought will precede virtuous action. Among them is Romans 12:2: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect, " which is cited in the foreword (14). Additionally, we know that cultivating a virtuous and pure thought life is certainly something that Scripture approves, as Philippians 4:8 makes clear: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

I feel that Dow has done an admirable job in this book, and his content is fresh and timely. He clearly is a well-read, experienced educational practitioner. Throughout the book, there are many anecdotal stories from history, as well as the Bible, that illustrate his points well. Dow was a teacher of social studies, and this shines through at several points in his meaningful interactions with historical examples. He peppers his writing with helpful and solid quotes from a wide variety of sources, and his endnotes and bibliography provide many important suggestions for further reading.

I found Dow's descriptive work in the first seven chapters to be among the most compelling chapters in the entire book. The way he describes the intellectual virtues should make any sincere and genuine believer long to have those traits of mind. After I read the first seven chapters, however, I wondered, "How are these particular virtues fulfilled in Jesus Christ? How is he the embodiment of these traits?" That is not an area deeply explored by the book.

I believe it can be safely said that Dow's approach is largely an application of the "third use of the law." His writing style is practical, didactic, and hortatory. Dow sets the bar high and encourages the pursuit of intellectual virtue in strong terms: "It is my hope that this book will encourage in all of us an uncompromising pursuit of truth and a commitment to becoming people of virtuous intellectual character" (143).

Since the primary audience of the book is intended to be believers, though, I wondered why there was little reference to the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in the "how to" section. I often wondered what Dow might say about the role of the Holy Spirit in our acquisition of these intellectual virtues. There were a few points where a deeper discussion of the imputed nature of the Christian's righteousness, granted to us through the atonement made by Jesus at the cross, could have been helpful, especially as it regards the life of the mind.

Dow has given Christian educators a commendable, thoughtful, quality book that merits wide readership, especially for those interested in intellectual character development. Works of this kind, especially from a Christian perspective, are truly needed, and his book is a valuable contribution to the field of literature on character education.

Friday, February 28th 2014

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