Rationale for the Phronesis Project

At the national level, moral education of some sort is "in" these days, as is apparent by the spread of character education programs in elementary and secondary schools, the increased interest in service-learning and other “engaged pedagogies” that promise to develop habits of civic engagement in high school and college students, and initiatives in professional formation at a wide variety of professional schools.  However, such efforts are often theoretically fragmented and pedagogically uneven.  Cognitive developmentalists, for example, often disdain the work of neo-classical character educators and vice-versa.  Work with one student population (elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or professional students) often is done in isolation from work with the other student populations.  Moreover, very little work in moral development is informed by the work of the neurosciences.  On the whole, we do not reflect enough on the theoretical assumptions behind the pedagogical practices and the practical implications of theories of moral development.  This Project seeks to address these shortcomings by fostering a conversation between these different constituencies, both nationally and locally at Mercer, with a view to producing both a more coherent understanding of moral development and ways of fostering such development among students at all educational levels.
At the local level, some Mercer faculty have made some dimension of character their area of research while others have participated in the university-wide Professionalism and Vocation Across the Professions Project.  The latter group has held three symposia featuring nationally-renowned scholars since 2005, most recently in October 2008 on the topic of practical wisdom.  Other efforts at Mercer are concerned with various aspects of character, character development, and professional formation.  These efforts include, the Mercer Center for Leadership and Volunteerism, the Mercer Service-Learning Program, the Mercer on Mission program, and the Atlanta-campus QEP Ethics Initiative, as well as efforts within individual disciplines and colleges/schools that seek to inculcate the standards of ethical behavior and professionalism appropriate to their fields, such as the Law School’s Legal Profession course and Tift College of Education’s emphasis on dispositions.

Assumptions of the Phronesis Project

• Character development is best understood in an Aristotelian sense as the acquisition of an ensemble of deeply-ingrained knowledge, skills, and dispositions (the “habits of the heart”) by which a person makes good decisions that issue in actions enabling one to flourish as an authentic human being in community with others.
• The “master virtue” of practical wisdom (phronesis), or “good judgment,” lies at the heart of good character by "conducting" this "ensemble" in particular situations so that the agent "does the right thing in the right way at the right time.”
• Notions of “good character” and practical wisdom are relevant for decision-making and action in many different contexts, among them the personal, the political, and the professional (where the development of “professional character” is associated with the concept of “professional formation”).
• Qualities of character can be learned by intentional, guided imitation so that one’s reasoning, passions, and actions more closely resemble those of “moral experts.”
• The development of “good character” and practical wisdom is intimately linked to, and shaped by, a sense of life’s meaning and purpose and hence necessitates raising existential questions that are central to the quest to discover that meaning and purpose: Who am I? What kind of person should I become? What are my core beliefs, values, and commitments? What is my goal and purpose in life?  What kind of life should I live?
• The development of “good character,” practical wisdom, and a sense of identity occurs over the course of a whole lifetime as it is lived in life’s various contexts, including the educational process, whether K-12, undergraduate, postgraduate, professional, or continuing education.