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Unveiling academic practices in the university classroom: A reflection on goods and virtues

Anton Elloway, Teaching Fellow (English for Academic Purposes) at University of Edinburgh

Viewing university teaching and academic study as practices – and the classroom as one of their primary spaces – can help reveal some of the internal goods inherent to these activities. This perspective on academic pursuits invites further reflection on the cultivation of virtues. In this blog post, I turn to the concept of ‘practice’ as articulated by the Scottish-American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and discuss its relevance to university education and learning.

To begin, what does MacIntyre mean by practice?

‘By a “practice” I mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.’ (MacIntyre, 2004, p. 187)

Chess, as MacIntyre notes, is a practice: it is a socially established activity where participants, in the course of both learning about and playing the game, come to recognise internal goods such as ‘analytic skill, strategic imagination, and competitive intensity’ (MacIntyre, 2004, p. 188), systematically improving their skills and abilities over time. Other practices he mentions include football, architecture, farming, music, painting, and the enquiries of physics, chemistry, biology and history. Excellence in these practices, achieved through the acquisition of particular skills, is acknowledged to be among the recognised goods internal to these practices.

While MacIntyre argues that teaching is not a practice but a component within various practices (MacIntyre & Dunne, 2002), others such as Joseph Dunne (2003) contend that teaching itself exhibits all the characteristics of a practice. For the purposes of my argument, however, whether teaching is considered a practice itself or an integral part of broader educational practices is of secondary importance. What is important is that engaging in any kind of practice ‘provides a practical education into the virtues’ (MacIntyre, 1998, p. 240).

Expanding on this notion of practices as educational platforms for virtue cultivation, it is important to understand the link between virtues and the pursuit of excellence within these activities. Virtues, as MacIntyre defines them, are acquired human qualities that ‘enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices’ (MacIntyre, 2004, p. 187). As skills alone are insufficient for achieving excellence, the guidance of virtues is necessary. Hence, engaging in practices can function as a ‘practical education’ in cultivating these virtues, which are indispensable for attaining genuine excellence.

‘Engaging in practices can function as a “practical education” in cultivating these virtues, which are indispensable for attaining genuine excellence.’

There are at least two points to be made here in terms of university education. First, educators are tasked with introducing students to their respective disciplines and, in so doing, are in a position to provide opportunities for students to realise the goods internal to these areas, whether in mathematics, music, or any other field. Educators can play a vital role not only in imparting knowledge but also in cultivating an understanding and appreciation of the goods of their practice – those of critical thinking or problem-solving, for example.

Second, participating in a practice entails acquiring and developing essential virtues necessary to recognise and actualise these internal goods. As MacIntyre indicates, the virtues of honesty, courage and justice are fundamental to most, if not all, practices. In chess, for instance, honesty is essential for players to adhere to the rules and maintain fair play. Similarly, in academia, honesty is required, such as in proper citation, to ensure the credibility of scholarly work. Moreover, and this is key, these and other virtues extend beyond academia and permeate all aspects of life. Therefore, the cultivation of virtues can be considered important not only for academic success but also for personal and professional growth.

Therefore, I pose the following questions:

  • Are the goods of studying and the goods of academic disciplines made salient to students through discussion or reflection?
  • And are these discussed in relation to virtues that contribute to the student’s overall life and wellbeing?
  • If not, could they be? Perhaps educators could incorporate discussions on internal goods and virtues into their classrooms.

‘Educators have the opportunity to empower students to excel academically and to become thoughtful contributors to a life marked by virtue.’

In conclusion, acknowledging the intrinsic goods within academic disciplines and aligning academic pursuits with virtues is certainly worth considering. By viewing university teaching and academic study as practices, the internal goods of these activities and the virtues necessary for their realisation can be unveiled. If educators make these goods and virtues explicit to students, they may help them understand their significance not only for academia but also for life outside the classroom. By doing so, educators have the opportunity to empower students to excel academically and to become thoughtful contributors to a life marked by virtue.


Dunne, J. (2003). Arguing for teaching as a practice: A reply to Alasdair MacIntyre. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37(2), 353–369.

MacIntyre, A. (1998). Politics, philosophy and the common good. In K. Knight (Ed.), The MacIntyre reader (pp. 235–252). Polity Press.

MacIntyre, A. (2004). After virtue: A study in moral theory (2nd ed.). Duckworth.

MacIntyre, A., & Dunne, J. (2002). Alasdair MacIntyre on education: In dialogue with Joseph Dunne. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 36(1), 1–19.