The Polis or the Parent? Who Should Teach the Children?

aristotleIn a previous post I argued that Aristotle would reject modern Progressivist theories of education based on his writings from the Nicomachean Ethics. Now, I’d like to explore the issue of “who is responsible for teaching children” based on Aristotle’s arguments in the Politics.

Aristotle’s Politics argues that the formation of the city-state (or Polis) is a natural of state man which arises to fulfill the human need for community. Thusly, the state exists for the happiness of its citizens. Towards the end of Book VII of the Politics, Aristotle begins an examination of the nature and manner of educating the children of the Polis. After some general observations about education, Aristotle says that the next examination should be, “whether the care of them [the children] should be the concern of the state or of private individuals” (1337a5). It is likewise the purpose of this essay to evaluate whether the Polis or the parent should be responsible for educating children.

Not surprisingly, Aristotle argues that the education of the young should be directed by the Polis. Aristotle gives several reasons for this conclusion. First, “the neglect of education does harm to the constitution” (1337a11). In other words, if the state is going to continue, it must have good citizens, or rather it’s whole purpose is to produce good (or happy) citizens. Second, if the education of the young is left to each individual, then the parent will give the child “separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best; the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all” (1337a25-26). That is, it will not lead to the unity of the state. (“The same for all” and “public” should be understood as only applying to free citizens and not to slaves or foreigners.) Finally, Aristotle says “neither must we suppose that anyone of the citizens belongs to himself for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole” (1337a27-29). For these reasons, Aristotle concludes that education should be done by the Polis. Not only that, but also that that education should be public and uniform: “since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private” (1337a21-23).

A general observation should be made before an evaluation of Aristotle is given. First, I have used the word Polis in place of State in summarizing Aristotle’s arguments. For what Aristotle has in mind by the State is not what we mean by it today. For Aristotle, the Polis is a small, homogenous group of individual “villages” bound together to meet the greater needs of individuals. The Polis should be large enough to be self-sufficient, but small enough that people know one another, for otherwise they cannot be judges of who ought to rule (see Book VII, Ch. 4). In fact, Aristotle categorically condemns the Nation-State of today: “experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed…for law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly” (1326a25-32). Therefore, to say that Aristotle would approve of the public education offered today would be false. Aristotle would be opposed to the United States Department of Education due to the sheer size of what it attempts to govern. At best, Aristotle would only approve of local school boards free from any greater control by the Nation-State or even the individual States.

The question still remains whether the education of children is should fall to local school boards or to parents. Some difficulties with Aristotle’s proposal become immediately clear. Firstly, that a community has a vested interest in the education of children does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the community should be the one to educate the children, but only that children receive an education. One can see this system in practice in the homeschool education movement. The state does not educate the child, but merely ensures that the children do receive one, whether it’s provided by them or not.

As to Aristotle’s second argument, that if education is left up to the parent, there will not be a common education that unifies the city, it also does not follow that education is therefore to be done by the state. For again, the state can ensure that basic education (like reading and writing) is provided to the student, even if it is not the one providing it.

Aristotle’s third argument is the one that is most problematic. He asserts that individuals do not belong to themselves but rather to the state and therefore the state has the duty to educate the children. For if each individual belongs to the state in the way Aristotle suggests, it is difficult to see just where the rights of the citizens and the rights of the states begin or end. No doubt, Aristotle has in mind a Polis where each citizen is like-minded with regard to ends of humanity and so will therefore agree on the education of the children. So again we may be comparing apples to oranges by comparing what Aristotle has in mind with the programs of today’s public education. For what exactly is to happen if the Polis mis-educates or under-educates the children? Is the parent simply to bow to the power of the Polis? If, on the other hand, it is the responsibility of the parent either to educate or to ensure that their children receive an education, then the rights of the parents trump the rights of the Polis.

Much more could and needs to be explored on this issue. The conclusion of this analysis shows that, indeed, the Polis does have an interest in the education of children, but that this education does not necessarily come from the Polis itself. A further argument needs to be explored, which is beyond the scope of this post, whether it is primarily the duty of the parent to educate the child. For if this is the case, it will have a dramatic effect on the nature and manner of this education in the Polis.

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