On Easter Sunday in 1972, Col. John Ripley (USMC) was serving in Vietnam as a senior advisor to the South Vietnamese army when word came down that the North Vietnamese army was moving toward his position. Outnumbered by a large margin, his orders were ones he’d never forget:
“Hold and die.”
Ripley knew that the nearby Dong-Ha bridge was a chokepoint for the enemy offensive. If the North Vietnamese army crossed the bridge, his position would be overrun. If the bridge were destroyed, however, the enemy would be significantly delayed. The bridge was within the advancing army’s shooting range, but Ripley willingly braved heavy fire over the course of hours, clambering hand-over-hand underneath the bridge, carrying explosives to cram into its underside. The bridge was blown up, and the enemy advance halted.
A clear case of courage, Ripley’s actions are worth pondering. Apart from the ever-present question, “Would I have done the same?” it’s also worth asking what in particular makes what he did so compelling.
There is, first, the fact that he acted over a relatively long time—two or three hours under fire is a lifetime. We often think of courageous actions as split-second decisions. Ripley’s actions encourage us to think otherwise. It’s one thing to face death for a split second; it’s another to face it down for a few hours. Another way of putting this is that there are two aspects of courage: one that faces danger and one that keeps going in adversity. Both aspects are on display in Ripley’s actions.
Secondly, Ripley’s duty required him to be courageous. If he hadn’t been courageous, he wouldn’t have been able to carry out his orders. Courage was not a luxury for Ripley. He and many other people would have been dead without it.
We also need to realize that what he did was possible only because of his training and experience. If he hadn’t been trained to do something like this, he wouldn’t have been able to do what he did. But training needs to be honed through real-life experience. No one can be simply dropped into a situation like that and do what Ripley did without extensive preparation under both simulated and real conditions.
Lastly, in recounting his experience many years later, Ripley said, “When you know you’re not going to make it, a wonderful thing happens. You stop being cluttered by the feeling that you’re going to save your butt.” That’s a curious statement: “a wonderful thing happens.” I suspect that not many others would be able to find anything wonderful in Ripley’s experience at the Dong-Ha bridge. Terrifying, frightening, petrifying, yes—perhaps even surreal. But a wonderful thing happens?
Courage, more than any of the other cardinal virtues, compels awe and inspires imitation. It is the stuff of good drama. Justice, perhaps, is a close second, but I haven’t seen many movies about—cue dramatic music bed—moderation under fire or prudence in the line of duty. One reason for this, as Plato noted long ago, is that feelings of bravery are easily stirred in us by the right kinds of stories, images, and music. The feelings associated with the other virtues differ in that respect.
Although justice is the virtue from which all the other virtues derive their power (see Plato’s Republic, 433b–c), courage is the virtue you must have if you are to have any hope of acquiring the others (see Lewis’s Mere Christianity, book 3, chapter 2). If, for example, you want to become more disciplined, you will eventually face the choice either to endure temptation or to give in. Your child’s stash of Halloween candy calls out, “Eat more!” The Playstation cajoles, “Play more!” The ever-present Internet beckons, “Distract yourself!” Courage of some sort is needed if you’re going to stick it out and not give in.
Most people know that there’s a difference between a man who from time to time does something courageous and a man who is courageous down to his bones, who is, in Aristotle’s words, “unafraid in the face of a beautiful death” (Nicomachean Ethics, book 3, chapter 6). The former merely does courageous acts and cowers in the face of death. The latter does courageous deeds because he is a courageous person. Likewise, a courageous woman is always ready and eager to do something courageous. Her counterpart must be forced to act courageously.
Aristotle was one of the first people to recognize and reflect on this difference. In his Nicomachean Ethics (written for his son, Nicomachus), he noted that a person who is truly courageous enjoys performing courageous actions. A person who is not courageous does not. Why is this? Aristotle thought, rightly, that human beings were made to be courageous. This is why people who are truly courageous enjoy doing courageous things: their character and actions are consistent with their very nature. If you don’t have a courageous character, then when you need to do something courageous, your character and actions will be at odds with your nature, and the experience will be onerous, painful, full of trepidation.
If we understand courage in this way, it is easier to see why Col. Ripley experienced something wonderful while he was crawling under the Dong-Ha bridge being shot at: he was made to do what he was doing, and he was the kind of person who was ready to do it.
Education is not war, although it is like it in some respects, and most of us are not drill sergeants training recruits for battle, although educators are doing something like that. Aristotle said that the paradigm of true courage is the brave citizen-soldier, and the paradigms of courageous actions are those done in battle with full awareness of the possibility of dying for one’s fatherland. (In need of a lively discussion? Ask a Navy man what he thinks of Aristotle’s claim (in Nicomachean Ethics, book 3, chapter 6) that sailors cannot be as courageous as soldiers.) If we take such men and actions as paradigmatic, we can see how a kind of courage might be needed in education.
Teachers and students are not called to be unafraid in the face of a beautiful death, though they do need to be unafraid in the face of their ignorance. Just as death is something bad, but not something to fear, so ignorance is something bad, but nothing to be afraid of.
Some teachers and students suffer from intellectual cowardice: they are afraid to be ignorant, or even to appear ignorant. Because of this they often avoid topics or situations in which their ignorance could be exposed. Consider the teacher who carefully constructs lesson plans so that students will never be aware of what she doesn’t know. Or the student who never speaks up in class because he doesn’t want to be wrong. Both are caused (in part) by undue fear of ignorance.
Others suffer from intellectual recklessness because they are unashamed of their ignorance of things they should know. Such students repeatedly volunteer opinions without caring to think about whether their opinions are true or false. Teachers who have taught the same material for a long time are also susceptible to this vice. Intellectual recklessness can easily creep up on veteran teachers who do not take care to continually investigate the claims they have made for many years.
When teachers and students work to find the point between intellectual cowardice and recklessness—when they hit upon the mean of intellectual courage—they will find that a wonderful thing happens. They will no longer be cluttered by thoughts about maintaining their reputations and instead find that the courage to do their intellectual duty is a source of joy.