Duty vs. Virtue

By Scott Keith


Is it the duty of every parent to send his or her child to college? Is it the duty of every high school student to go to college after graduation? I recently moderated a discussion in one of my freshman seminar sections wherein I asked the students to reflect upon their motivation for attending college. I was surprised to hear that most noted that they came to college because they “had to.” Since I have always viewed post high school education as a privilege and, in many cases even a luxury, this was perplexing to me. Being a privilege, I have always taught my children that they should go to college if they want to go to college for the education. Once there, I have asked them to seek out every educational opportunity possible. What was even more perplexing in this discussion was that some of these same students noted that they were attaining to serve in careers that didn’t necessarily require a college diploma. $20,000.00 to $40,000.00 a year is quite costly if one is not attending college for the vast educational opportunities available at most four-year institutions of higher learning. Even more costly is if the degree being pursued is not needed for one’s desired vocational pursuits.

So then, I asked again, why come at all? The answer was simple: duty.

These students, I believe, feel a sense of duty to attend college because their parents, and society, have lead them to believe that they “need” a degree to succeed. Many blogs, articles, and books have been written that have completely debunked the idea that, in America, it is necessary to obtain a college degree in order to have a good career and be happy. If anyone would like a primer on this, feel free to watch this TED Talks by Mike Rowe (watch here). Better yet, read Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft. But even if Mike and Matthew are wrong, is a sense of duty why people ought to attend university? I think not.


The classic liberal arts education was designed to educate free people freely. As such, it focused on virtue, rather than duty. It is virtuous for a university to offer and students to want to learn from the various fields of study represented at the university. Science, Mathematics, History, Literature, Philosophy, and even Theology are valuable subjects capable of developing those who learn them into well rounded, dare I say, virtuous people, who are able to contribute, freely, to society as a whole. Fulfilling one’s duty rarely produces a desire to use what has been learned to contribute in a virtuous way to the world around us. Freedom to learn, produces desire to learn. A desire to learn produces a desire to apply what one has learned in a positive contributive way. Around here, we often say that we are developing wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens for lives of learning and service. Virtue emphasizes one’s developed character and freedom to serve neighbor while duty emphasizes only adherence to perceived cultural rules or norms.

What I am arguing for is investing in education for the sake of becoming educated. To become educated, seems to be the virtuous option. I believe it is those who are well educated, who discover what virtue has meant throughout time, and that they are likely to become virtuous themselves. I also believe that education can be had in the classroom, in the workshop, or in the home. But, nonetheless, everyone ought to become exceedingly educated in his or her field. Pursue education, learning in all of its forms, desire virtue over duty, and find virtue in your calling. In the world of duty vs. virtue, virtue ought to win because it is born of freedom, and virtue born of freedom, not bondage, is what produces wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens. If you do send your child to college, send them to be educated. Encourage them to seek out and pursue every educational opportunity in whatever it is God has called them to be so that they learn to master their field and find virtue in their service to others.