An Admirable Education — Part One: Aristotelian Aims

When it comes to the purpose of education, I find myself gravitating to an education which would produce the attributes of Aristotle’s “good life”: Virtue, Wisdom, and Fulfillment. It is my view that traditional education does far too little in regards to these three aims. In bringing this about, I think education should consist in an array of courses, with lessons grounded in experience, and a range of assessments. The value of any discipline or subject in education should directly reflect upon its ability to foster communication, critical thought, and an eagerness to seek knowledge. An admirable education is one that, above all, teaches one how to live well. I think Jean-Jacques Rousseau got it right when he wrote, “Life is the business I would have [the child] learn.”

There are three aspects I would aim to refine, through education, in the child: The life of the politician (virtue), the life of the philosopher (wisdom), and the life of pleasure (fulfillment). These three attributes seem necessary and sufficient conditions to produce well-rounded individuals. John Stuart Mill called this a “liberal education,” which has a partisan political flair to it; I mean to incur no connotations here. I agree with Mill insofar as a good education “does not train individuals for their trades but is intended to enable persons to be reflective members of their society…with intelligence and broad perspective.”

So, first and foremost, education should cultivate virtue. The aim here is to produce thoughtful, morally sensitive individuals who are actively involved with the communities around them. Enveloped in this is an understanding of the world, its history, and ideas about our values in it. Aristotle calls this the “Life of the Politician.” John Dewey argued that, in order to cultivate virtue, “school must itself be a community.” Social life and, more importantly, ethical behavior should be encouraged in any admirable school. Returning to Mill, we should teach students to “love virtue, and feel it an object in itself, and not a tax paid.” In other words, education should render virtue as pleasurable for its own sake.

In addition to virtue, we should add wisdom. This is Aristotle’s “Life of the Philosopher.” Our educational system should promote a healthy skepticism and a broad association between varying contents and subjects. For this, I agree with Bertrand Russell’s stressed importance of cultivating a “fundamental open-mindedness” but not so open that our brain falls out. Students should be readily able to grasp new situations and content. But we should not dictate subjects as fixed, finite, in-and-of themselves. Again, I think Russell was right in saying that “education ought to foster the wish for the truth, not the conviction that some particular creed is the truth.” We should prompt students to follow down the paths they find, with nudges from the teacher.

Finally — and maybe most importantly — school should promote happy citizens. This is Aristotle’s “Life of Pleasure.” I want to avoid connotations with our culture’s understanding of pleasure, and reframe it to mean happiness. This entails students being able to identify their own problems with solutions in mind and who, upon graduation, are able to flourish in many realms, not just vocationally. By encouraging students to pursue their own interests, we foster that quality beyond schooling. Returning to Dewey, “an individual is happy and society well organized when each individual engages in those activities for which [they have] a natural equipment.” The more equipped a student is in engaging the world, I believe, the happier they will be. Above all else, these three goals should be on the mind of any philosopher of education.

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We have identified our purposes for education, but we should now turn to the methods to bring them about. In terms of academics, I would provide a “menu” of courses, ground lessons in experiences, and assess learning mastery through, again, a “menu” of projects. A menu of courses is, essentially, the way the University is structured, only I would employ this model in earlier education. Choice in education is a huge motivator for students: It produces, in Rousseau’s terms, “well-regulated liberty.” They can choose, from a list of pre-approved courses, what they want to learn. A massive motivator for students is their present interest which, drawing on Rousseau, is “the great motive impulse, the only one that leads sure and far.” Of course, it is necessary to expose them to things they aren’t already interested in or familiar with, so there must be requirements for students to fulfill categories of knowledge. Instilling the power of autonomy in children is highly desirable for the practice of living well and in accordance with virtue. This makes learning more intimate, and students more enthusiastic about their courses. The way public education, and even higher education, has gridlocked students into course structures is sickening and stultifies many, otherwise curious, children away from learning.

The structure of schooling should always be mindful to ground lessons in experiences. This means treating lessons as ends, not as means. Dewey had it right when he wrote that “education is literally and all the time its own reward,” which reveals that “no alleged study or discipline is educative unless it’s worthwhile in its own immediate having.” So, the endless vocational education our politicians pontificate about is hogwash.

The recent push for STEM educations is indicative of one thing above all: Our politicians don’t understand what problems the humanities can solve (this deserves its own essay). And when material “has to be made interesting,” borrowing still from Dewey, we are doing something profoundly wrong. If Dewey and I are right, then every course should have an immediate value, not just an instrumental value.

If a class discussion is necessary, let it be in a socratic circle, where every student can see each other’s faces — make it an experience, let the students form relationships — and have an equal degree of participation. This puts the instructor in the circle with the students, on their level. Let instructors not be authority figures so much as learning companions and facilitators.

In addition, field trips are far underutilized as a pedagogical tool in traditional schooling; the engagement of kids in fresh environments is obviously superior to their engagement in the familiar classroom. Rousseau beautifully illustrates my frustrations on the matter: “When I see young people confined to the speculative studies at the most active time of life and then cast suddenly into the world of affairs without the least experience, I find it as contrary to reason as to nature and am not at all surprised that so few people manage their lives well.”

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If the purpose of education is to teach how to live well, then we should provide concrete lessons through experience. Dewey also noted how vital this fact really is when he wrote that “there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education.” Field trips, then, should be regular and broad; apart from economic reasons, I can’t imagine an otherwise defensible conclusion. Teach botany, for example, by a lesson planting food that the students return to harvest later. Teach animal rights through a trip to the zoo (“god forbid the children bear witness to the atrocities of the slaughterhouse!”), etc. Nothing is less effective than a lesson divorced from the child’s own life. And we ignore this fact every single time that education is treated as proxy for political pressures.

Assessment, if we must endlessly perseverate about “accountability,” should be a menu of projects. This can take the form of essays, portfolios, art, short films, speeches, etc. Hell, if a student prefers it, they can take a standardized test. Students express their feelings and understandings of things in varying ways, and we should not be so insensitive that we limit the way they can demonstrate their learning. In other words, assessment should be seen as an opportunity to explore. And we can see why this is the obvious approach to assessment; in the words of Mill, “Those who know how to employ opportunities will often find that they can create them: and what we achieve depends less on the amount of time we possess, than on the use we make of our time.” The more we narrow down opportunities for expression, the more we confine the child’s autonomy in the future.

And, in considering the scope of how and why we should be educating people, this broadening of assessment immediately benefits instructors as well as students. Imagine having to read and grade the same essay thirty times; it would be an amalgamated, tedious, dreadful, monotonous experience. I think we are magnetized towards standardized testing because it’s easily the most efficient method of assessment. But I think, like Dewey, that “efficiency” results in a “distortion of emotional life.” As educators, we want anything but that. In the kind of education I think we should have, projects — as tools of assessment — should be presentations of sorts. I think this ensures that assessments don’t provoke fear and anxiety at the thought of failure or incorrectness. In terms of assessment, borrowing from A.S. Niell, the most important fact of education is that the student tries again. We have succeeded as educators when a student has taken genuine interest in producing their project for assessment.

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The kinds of things an admirable school would teach — the learning outcomes — would be an array of subjects all aimed at the cultivation of broad, fearless knowledge: Curiosity. There is no tenable view that holds curiosity to be the main outcome of modern public education. Russell succinctly sums up my thoughts on the matter: “With the death of curiosity we may reckon that active intelligence, also, has died.” And this is what keeps me up at night, that people don’t live their lives in wonder, awe, and curiosity. We’re so focused on job growth that we have ignored the lives of our fellow citizens. And our news media further dehumanizes them with every passing economic story. Curiosity must be the outcome of learning, if nothing else.

The three aims for curiosity as a learning outcome, then, would be communication (Literature, Art, and Poetry), critical thought (Philosophy, Ethics), and an eagerness to seek answers (The Sciences).

First, education should equip students with an ability to relate well with others, to speak clearly, and to listen effectively. Dewey argued quite persistently that “All communication is educative” and I think he was right. This is what I consider communication to be: The passing and receiving of new information. Communication and, perhaps more importantly, the empathic capacities, are cultivated best through symbolic expression: Literature, Art, and Poetry. Dewey also held, as I do, that much of what we have to learn in life is stored in symbols. Our society functions, for all intents and purposes, symbolically. We often pretend as though this were not the case, but it’s time to face up to the cues of our own culture. Let the child be well-equipped to deal with that reality.

Secondly, I would cultivate critical thought through philosophy and ethics. Education should bolster critical thought through lessons in reasoning, moral theory, investigations into the philosophy of X, etc. This doesn’t confine the course menu only to philosophy courses, however. Many subjects can be philosophical in application, not necessarily in content alone. Critical thought, to me, means a disciplined mind. And the disciplined mind, according to Mill, is what “makes our opinions consistent with themselves and with one another, and forces us to think clearly, even when it cannot make us think correctly.” We have succeeded when a student intellectually polices themselves.

Finally, I would cultivate an eagerness to seek answers through science. The scientific method and its applications should be near the center of any admirable education. In Dewey’s words, “Science is the experience of becoming rational.” The sciences are the bumpers in the bowling lane of reasoning; they keep our ideas from rolling into the gutter. Russell also thought that “without science, democracy is impossible.” To call our nation “democratic” without the population having a firm grasp on the scientific method is not only a contradiction, but an embarrassment.

Perhaps we need to get clear on what we mean by science, here. Students should first learn about a scientist — their life and what they contributed — and then go about experimenting, reasoning about the ins and outs of the theory, how it has changed the world in various ways. Any effective science that will be taught, according to Russell, “requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy.” In other words, place science in the context of a narrative; tell us the story of the sciences.

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It is at the pinnacle of salience that we, as educators, should understand that knowledge is fluid. Students should be led to realize this through their learning. And that should not dampen their persistence to get to the heart of the matter. These three learning outcomes would produce, what Russell considers, components of the “ideal character”: Vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence.

My biggest problem with modern education is that it fosters anguish and anxiety at the thought of being wrong. This tendency to punish wrongness in the classroom is morally repugnant. It closes minds, revokes curiosity, and stifles thought. Before you object, note that I am not indicating any kind of lassiez-faire approach to the truth. We must always keep our goal in the direction of correction, but the path to learning cannot be punished by moments of incorrectness. The fear of being wrong is, in my view, a neurosis that we have willingly created for ourselves. This fear stifles discourse on the rational plane; it revokes our dissension to the status quo. Worse still, it quiets our minds to entertaining other points of view. And I think our obsessive deference to the news media is, in large part, because it plays the role of “information authority” to our culture. We think we can take information in, assimilate it to our worldview, and move on. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, what should be valued above all is a willingness to change our minds when confronted with new evidence.

Too often is education politicized by agendas which have nothing to do with the flourishing of children. It is vital that we respect the rights of children. We should not be exclusively concerned with worldly success as the purpose of education; I think worldly success is a byproduct of teaching students how to live well. And we keep getting that wrong. In the words of the educational philosopher Patricia Heidenry, “Our children’s lives — not their reading scores — should be our primary concern.”