[ Disclaimer: please understand that I am not, in this post disparaging those people who work in public education. My criticisms are leveled against the Philosophy of Education which is driving modern Progressivist Education. I wholeheartedly support those people who are working hard in public schools, in spite of the philosophy which drives it.]
Aristotle stands in between two giants of history: his teacher, Plato, and his student, Alexander the Great. As both a student of a great teacher and a teacher of a great leader, one wonders just what Aristotle thought of education. Today there are several strains of educational theory which each offer their own views on the means and ends of education. Aristotle himself had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, so one wonders just what kind of education he thought best? A brief analysis of his Nicomachean Ethics reveals that Aristotle would likely reject modern theories of education.
In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins his discussion of ethics with the observation that whenever a person acts, they always act with some end in mind, some purpose, goal, or good. Further, he observes that the ends we have in mind are mostly means to other ends. For example, I brush my teeth. This is not done, however, without purpose. Clearly there is a good I have in mind for the action, for otherwise I would not brush my teeth. People may brush their teeth with different goods in mind. For example, one person may do it in order to avoid gingivitis, others to have a “clean” feeling in their mouths. Either way, the end in mind is a means to another end. In the former case the end is health and in the later it is pleasure.
Aristotle links the chain of means and ends and asks, is there something towards which all actions aim? That is, is there a “last end” or a “highest good” that we have in mind when we act? Aristotle asserts that the end we all have in mind is “happiness.” (See Note at end of post) That is, whatever we do, we do because we think it will make us happy. All people, says Aristotle, agree on this, but that is as far as the agreement goes. Just what is meant by “happiness” is highly disputed. Some might say that happiness is found in wealth, some that it is found in pleasure, others that it is found in honors. Is there any way to settle this dispute? Aristotle thinks so.
The question of “what is human flourishing or human happiness” must be defined in terms of what it means “to be human.” For, to find the “good” of anything, we must know its function. For example, the good of the computer rests in its functioning as it was designed to function (compute) and it reaches its “good” when it functions (computes) according to the way it was designed to function. The guitarist is a “good” guitarist when he plays the guitar in the way it was designed to function. So, if a human being has a function, the human being’s ultimate “good” will be functioning according to its nature (i.e., we will find fulfillment (our good) when we function according to our essence). Yet, how might we determine the human function?
To determine an object’s function one needs to discover what distinguishes it from all other objects. What is it that makes it, it? What is it, within humans, which makes them “human” and not “whales” or something else? Aristotle claims that the human function is “the soul’s activity that expresses reason [as itself having reason] or requires reason [as obeying reason]” (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a7-8). That is, it is the ability to think or to know that is unique and the principle element that makes a human, a human. However, it is not merely “thinking” but rather reasoning and acting in accordance with reason. Furthermore, it is not just thinking and acting, but thinking and acting well; that is, excellently or virtuously. Aristotle concludes, “each function is completed well when its completion expresses the proper virtue. Therefore the human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue” (1098a15-17). Happiness, therefore, “is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue” (1102a5).
So, what has all of this to do with education? Education itself is an action and therefore may be analyzed with regards to its means and ends. The central dispute in contention is two different theories as to the end of education, and how these relate to the end of human “happiness.” (Here and throughout, I will not assess the means (i.e., methods and materials) by which the two views on education attempt to reach their ends, but only the ends themselves.)
On the “Progressivist” view of education, the primary purpose of education is vocational in nature. For example, the United States Department of Education’s stated purpose is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” No doubt, the competition to which this statement refers is “jobs” or “careers.” The consistent message from politicians with regard to education is that students need to be prepared to enter the “workforce,” and that we must be more “competitive” in math and sciences so that Americans will not be displaced by foreign competition in the job market. So, when the question is put forth as to the end of education, the answer is, “to secure a career.”
On the “Classical” view of education, the primary purpose of education is to rear children into adults. Education on this view has the whole of the person in mind, to train boys to become men and to train girls to become women. It is not taken for granted that as children grow they will naturally mature into adults. This begs the question of what we mean by “adult”. There are a range of answers to this question, but invariably the Classicist will answer along the lines of Aristotle outlined above. The Classicist holds that the end of education is to train the child to think and act well in accordance with virtue. Says Aristotle, “excellence, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual excellence in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral excellence come about as a result of habit…” (1103a14). Habits themselves are trainable and we must, through education, come to learn “to enjoy the things we ought and to hate the things we ought” (1172a22).
So, which of these two views of education is most consistent with the end of “human happiness?” The Progressivist view of education, while it may prepare a student for a job, has confused the means with the end. For if it is asked, “why do we want people to have careers,” the answer, most assuredly would be, so that they can be “happy.” How exactly having a career ipso facto makes one happy or just what “happiness” is, is never quite addressed, especially given how unhappy so many people are in their careers. It isolates a single part of life and leaves the children to fend for themselves in all other things. Furthermore, it eliminates even the possibility of educating for “happiness” precisely because it attempts to remain neutral with regard to the definition of “humanity.” Thus, Progressive education is reductive by its very nature, treating children not as humans who need to be nurtured, but as animals that need to be trained.
Contrariwise, the Classicist has in view an education that creates, not young adults who are prepared for a specific career, but adults who are prepared to live well no matter what their career. For “career” is not an end itself, but a means to an end. Occupation is but one part of life and unless the child is taught to think and act well, even with an occupation, the child can never be fully “happy.” Furthermore, Classical education allows the student to stand before and judge all things, thus preparing the child for whatever may come. The carpenter, who has received only training in carpentry, may be able to judge what is or is not a good wardrobe, but not what is or is not a just society. Such judgments, however, are necessary for the fully formed human. For, to know, to judge, and to act well is what it means “to be human.” As Aristotle says,
“Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general” (1094b27-95a1).
Given this, it seems unlikely that Aristotle would have entrusted the education of his son to the modern public school system. The education which Aristotle endorsed was one which conforms to the purpose of human beings, contributes to their proper functioning, and enables the child to grow into adulthood. An education that only equips the student to accomplish a single task is not meant for the free, liberated man. Without the ability to stand before all things and judge, the child is at the mercy of those who can. What needs to be assessed now are the best means by which to accomplish this end.
Aristotle uses the word “eudaimonia” which is misleadingly translated as “happiness,” and notoriously difficult to define. Etymologically, “eudaimonia” means “well-spirited” but may best be translated as “flourishing,” “blessed,” or “fulfilled.” The English word “happiness” is derived from the Old Norse “happ,” which means “chance” or “luck.” Clearly this cannot be what Aristotle has in mind. See, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1099b9-17.