A positive role for failure in virtue education

Journal of Moral Education 46 (4):347-362 (2017)
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Discussions of moral education tend to focus either on how the virtuous succeed, or on how the vicious fail on the road to virtue. Stories of success focus, for example, on the role of the virtuous agent, on how to make productive use of literature and on the influential position occupied by peers and family. Accounts of failure, on the other hand, try to, for example, understand the phenomenon of weakness of will, analyse the concept of 'vice' and investigate the disruptive influence of temptations and duress. However, very little is said on the positive role of failure. In this paper I want to develop a positive account of moral education that makes use of failures. I will explore the differences between constructive failures, that is, failures that lead to greater self-awareness and positive character transformation, and destructive failures, that is, failures that set back moral development and may even make virtue impossible. I will develop two arguments with roots in the empirical sciences: The first makes use of the notion of ‘desirable difficulties’, that is the idea that some obstacles make us better by forcing us to find ways to overcome them. The second argument explores the situational factors that influence success and failure, and suggests that educators familiar with the influence of situational factors can manipulate them to create conditions of constructive failure for students to learn from.
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