The Portsmouth Declaration: A Call for Intellectual and Moral Excellence in Schooling

On January 25-26, 2001, The Link Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting content and character in the classroom, convened a group of scholars to discuss a path-breaking article by Dartmouth College Professor James Bernard Murphy, entitled “Good Students, Good Persons.” Asking the question: “what is education?” and looking at current directions in both intellectual and moral education, Professor Murphy made the case for the cultivation of intellectual virtue as both the intellectual and moral aim of schooling. Two days of discussions yielded the “Portsmouth Declaration.”


“If we do not turn the hearts of children toward knowledge and character, we will lose their gifts and undermine their idealism.” —George W. Bush, January 20, 2001

AMERICAN SCHOOLS HAVE lost their way. In the past thirty years our schools have been asked, and at times compelled by state mandates, to pursue a wide range of non-academic activities and a broad spectrum of ideological agendas. Whether teaching about safe sex or multiculturalism, teen parenting or diverse lifestyles, the numerous extraneous demands placed on our nation’s schools have taken them off course.

It is time to recall that the primary purpose of schooling is the cultivation of good students, and in and through that process, the development of good persons. We, call upon parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers to recognize that while some schools must alleviate the physical hunger of the children they serve, all schools must alleviate the intellectual hunger of students entrusted to their care. While some schools require security systems and teams of counselors, all schools must create an ethos of civility that promotes security and fosters learning.

The American Founders considered the twin goals of education to be “the diffusion of knowledge” and “the cultivation of virtue.” In the past fifteen years we have, fortunately, seen the rise of parallel education reform movements. One emphasizes rich “content” or knowledge in the curriculum, and another emphasizes character education, or the promotion of virtue. As educators and scholars who have supported both those goals, we recognize that now the two must be as one – inseparable and indivisible.

For the successful acquisition of knowledge and skills cannot be divorced from character. Motivation, a disposition of character, is essential. A good student does not simply master certain bodies of knowledge and employ critical thinking skills. They hunger to know and seek the truth in those pursuits. The good student strives not for easy answers, but for genuine understanding, persevering in the face of obstacles. The good student wishes not just to “get it done,” but to “get it right;” not simply to “get ahead,” but to “get the most out of it.”

We therefore call upon all educators to place new focus on the intellectual virtues, those traits that motivate our students to care about their work and do it well. While teaching a rigorous academic program, all educators should teach children to love the truth, and therefore to be diligent and honest in their work; to be accurate, precise, and thorough in their presentation; to persevere in difficult tasks; to consider both sides of an issue; to be fair to opposing views; to be intellectually courageous in pursuit of truth; and to be humble about assessing what they know in the face of the vast amount they do not know.

We call on those in the field of character education to direct more thought and energy toward an understanding of intellectual virtue, and an understanding of which moral virtues most directly support the intellectual virtues. For the intellectual virtues are a subset of the moral virtues. Philosophers have begun this task and historian Diane Ravitch reminds us that “schools cannot be successful unless they teach children the importance of honesty, personal responsibility, intellectual curiosity, industry, kindness, empathy and courage.” Those virtues contribute directly to quality academic work, and to an ethos of civility much needed in our schools.

If we reclaim for our nation’s schools the goal of intellectual virtue – which is fundamentally about truth-seeking – we will reap the following rewards:

● In the teaching of American history we will reclaim an honest and inclusive telling of our past. We will repudiate “presentism,” and discredit the dishonest and destructive “Hate-Our-History” movement.

● In the teaching of literature we will help students recognize literary quality: accurate language, felicitous imagery, delightful cadence, rhythm, and wit. We will not debase literature by redefining it as a tool for gender, racial, ethnic or social activism.

● In the teaching of math we will restore concern for mathematics as a discipline, for its rigor, precision, accuracy, logic, and universality. We will not be misled by those who believe calculators, guess-work, reflective essays, and unique “cognitive styles” should be emphasized over content, practice, and mastery of fundamentals.

● In the teaching of science we will restore a concern for the importance of systematic inquiry grounded in a solid knowledge base and premised on accurate and careful observational skills. We will reject a postmodernist view of science that questions the objectivity of observations and the truth of scientific knowledge.

With a strong national commitment to cultivating intellectual and moral virtue, we can look forward to the day when U. S. test scores will rise to the summit of industrialized nations rather than languishing at the bottom. We can hope for the day when metal detectors at the school door will be unnecessary. We can anticipate a time when foul language will be replaced by civil discourse, and when earnest self-discipline will replace baseless self-esteem.

If we pursue the intellectual virtues, we will advance an initiative that unites the twin concerns of content and character in the classroom. For to be a good student, one who is conscientious in pursuit of the truth and diligent in its acquisition, is in large measure to be a good person. And being a good person, one who is respectful of his peers, responsible in his actions, helpful to others, and committed to the community of which he is a part, is in large measure what it takes to be a good student.