NEW YORK – When John Garvey arrived at the Catholic University of America 12 years ago and needed a theme for his inaugural address as university president, he chose “intellect and virtue,” with the premise that the job of a Catholic university was more than teaching a course. It was also to form students into “good Catholics and good citizens while they were there.”

Virtue doubled as the theme of his inaugural year (something the public affairs office told him he needed), and it stuck. He continued speaking about virtues throughout his tenure and for the past six or seven years he has even taught an undergraduate course on the topic.

Now, with his tenure at CUA coming to a close, Garvey has released a new book, The Virtues, that he likens to a valedictory statement that wraps up the past 12 years at CUA, and nearly four decades in higher education. Speaking with Crux about the book and theme, he said he chose virtues because he loves it as a way of thinking about the moral life for young people.

“The virtues are actually a set of principles, guidelines, or examples for what we maintain is a good way to live and the book is an argument for why these are good things,” Garvey said. “Why is generosity something that we should admire and imitate, or why is charity the greatest of all the virtues? You can’t make logical arguments about that. You can only argue about them by pointing to examples and say, ‘See? Wouldn’t you like to be like this?‘”

“It’s a different kind of education, but I think that’s the discussion that we want to have with young people,” he continued. “We want to point them in a particular direction and show them why that’s something that they should hope to imitate or accomplish in their own lives.”

Each chapter in the 190-page book is a different set of virtues:

  1. The Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity
  2. The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Courage, Temperance
  3. The Little Virtues: Youth, Humility, Honesty, Docility, Silence, Modesty, Studiousness, Industriousness
  4. Middle Age: Truthfulness, Patience, Generosity, Meekness, Constancy, Hospitality
  5. Old Age: Repentance, Gratitude, Mercy, Magnanimity, Gentleness, Benignity
  6. The Crown Virtues: Wisdom, Peace, Joy

Without hesitation, Garvey explains that charity is the most important virtue “because the central fact about Christian belief is that God is love and God made us out of his love and Jesus redeemed us from our feelings out of love for us and that’s the way Christians ought to behave.”

One theme of the book is the need for universities to incorporate teaching of the virtues into the curriculum. He argues in the book’s introduction that intellectual life depends on moral life, going as far to say, “Without virtue, it’s hard to see what the purpose of university is.”

“Undergraduates who begin college as teenagers graduate four years later with adult responsibilities,” Garvey writes. “A marketing major might soon after be a mother. A philosophy student will have the responsibilities of a citizen … Universities have an obligation to prepare students for these roles, too.”

Asked if universities fulfill this obligation, Garvey first reflected on university culture when he began his career in the mid-1990s. He said the predominant theory of the time that he observed in talking to other faculty was a belief that college is a way of inviting people to look at a number of possible paths and choosing one, but not necessarily pointing them in a particular direction.

Garvey said he’s seen that shift over the years, and now, he said he believes more people are open to the idea that “part of the business of higher education is to form people in certain ways,” and his argument is that the best way to form people is through the virtues. Garvey, though, also acknowledged that universities could execute moral teaching better, citing the shutdown culture that exists.

“Getting people to think about whether there are actually good ways to behave is the right thing to do,” Garvey said. “Making them think that way is not a good way to educate them.”

The other purpose of the book is for the students. Garvey and his wife Jeanne live on campus as do the undergraduate students and have enjoyed meals and activities with them over the years. He said it’s made them feel like “parents or grandparents,” in that they’re concerned with both the students’ academics, and the kind of people they’re becoming over the course of their four years on campus.

“You evolve so much while you’re here and being a part of that has been a great privilege for us,” Garvey said. “And this book, The Virtues, is about advice for them in that phase of their lives.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg