February 28, 2012 essays

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The Roots of State Education Part 3: Aristotle and Civic Virtue

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was born in Stagira, a small coastal town in the political orbit of Macedonia. He traveled to Athens while still in his teens and enrolled in Plato’s Academy, where he remained for almost twenty years. Plato’s influence on Aristotle was profound, but there were also significant differences. For example, Aristotle criticized Plato’s stress on uniformity; and, in response to Plato’s call to institute communal property among the guardians (the elite class of rulers), Aristotle defended private property with arguments that would be used for centuries thereafter.

Aristotle explicitly repudiated the notion of limited government that was defended by some of his contemporaries. He quoted the sophist Lycophron as saying that a government exists “for the sake of alliance and security from injustice” and that laws should serve as “a surety to one another of justice.” Aristotle disagreed. Rather than confine itself to this negative function — the enforcement of justice — the state should actively promote the good  life.

In order to promote the good life and maintain social order, the state should inculcate civic virtue. Those “who care for good government take into consideration virtue and vice in states. Whence it may be further inferred that virtue must be the care of the state which is truly so called.” This concern with civic virtue was the basis for Aristotle’s plan of a comprehensive system of state education, one explicitly based on the Spartan model.

Like Plato, Aristotle did not distinguish between the voluntary sphere of society and the coercive sphere of the state (or city-state, in their case). Consequently, individual freedom was not important enough for Aristotle even to consider when recommending laws. As a philosopher who believed he knew what is needed for a good society, Aristotle argued that laws should be concerned with producing “the healthiest possible bodies in the nurseries of the state.” The age of marriage for women should be around eighteen; for men, thirty-seven. Marriages should take place during winter, and married couples must “render service to the state by bringing children into the world.” Pregnant women should engage in moderate exercise by being required to make daily pilgrimages to a religious shrine.

According to Aristotle, “There should certainly be a law to prevent the rearing of deformed children,” but infanticide should be against the law when used merely as a method of population control. Instead, laws should limit the size of the family. When this limit is exceeded the pregnant woman should be compelled to abort by inducing a miscarriage (provided “sense and life” have not yet begun in the embryo).

The physical health of children should be closely supervised. They should be habituated from an early age to endure cold weather; this will further their health and harden them “in advance for military service.” Superintendents of education should determine appropriate stories and games, which should be neither laborious nor effeminate. In short, “The superintendents of education must exercise a general control over the way in which children pass their time.”

The legislator must also prohibit corrupting influences. The use of bad language should be proscribed “everywhere in our state,” and those who speak or act indecently “must be punished accordingly.” (Younger violators should be subjected to physical punishment, whereas older violators should “undergo indignities of a degrading character.”)  And by the same logic, indecent pictures, paintings, statues, and plays should also be prohibited. The list goes on and on.

So far there seems to be no essential difference between the fundamental approaches of Plato and Aristotle, but Aristotle made a distinction that Plato had not. Aristotle, unlike Plato, drew a distinction between a good man and a good citizen, and this distinction would have a profound influence on later philosophy.

According to Aristotle, our common nature as human beings generates a concept of the good man that applies to everyone, so Aristotle agreed with Plato that in an ideal state there would be no difference between the good man and the good citizen. But Aristotle goes on to say that in states as we actually find them, the civic virtues of a good citizen vary according to the nature of the state in question. The upshot of Aristotle’s argument is that one can be a good citizen while lacking some of the moral qualities of a good man.  

Civic virtue covers a good deal of ground for Aristotle, but in his distinction between the good man and the good citizen there exists the potential argument that state education should be restricted to teaching the civic virtues essential to citizenship, thereby leaving a broad area of moral autonomy to the individual — a sphere in which the state should not intervene.

Here we need to jump ahead to the thirteenth century and the writings of Thomas Aquinas, who was principally responsible for integrating many of Aristotle’s ideas into Christian political philosophy. Following Aristotle, Aquinas distinguished the good citizen from the good man; one can possess the virtues necessary for citizenship  (e.g., one  can abstain from theft) while being morally deficient in other respects. Although Aristotle was the source of this doctrine, Aquinas drew conclusions from it that Aristotle had not.  

According to Aquinas, the purpose of human laws is to “uphold the common good of justice and peace.” Coercive laws are necessary to regulate external behavior, but they cannot create virtuous men, because (as he wrote in Summa Contra Gentiles) “the main thing in virtue is choice, which cannot be present without voluntariness to which violence is opposed.”

In contrast to an earlier strain in Christian thought, according to which the repression and punishment of sin are fundamental purposes of government, Aquinas distinguished between two categories of vice, namely, those vices that violate the principles of justice and those personal vices that do not. As Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica:

 [H]uman law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Therefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain, and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society  could not be maintained; thus human law prohibits murder, theft and the like.

I do not wish to suggest that Aquinas was a libertarian – far from it – but in contending that individuals have a moral “sphere of action which is distinct from that of the whole,” and in contending that actions in this sphere should be left to voluntary choice, even though vice might be the result (he went so far as to defend legalized prostitution), Aquinas established a conceptual framework that would later play a major role in the libertarian distinction between vices and crimes. For Aquinas, as one commentator has noted, human laws “did not make men good but rather established the outward conditions in which a good life can be lived.”  This was a significant departure from the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, neither of whom left room for a sphere of personal autonomy that should be exempt from the power of the state.

In earlier essays I discussed the Spartan model of education, its influence on Plato and Aristotle, and Plato’s objections to free market education. In this essay I have outlined Aristotle’s views on education and explained how his distinction between a good man and a good citizen was modified by Aquinas.

Tracking the influence of ideas over many centuries is always a tricky enterprise, especially in the limited space available to me in this format, but we can now proceed to examine some typical examples of how the models I outlined were used by later advocates of state education.  

The Spartan model was frequently invoked during the eighteenth century by those philosophers who believed that the fundamental purpose of education should be to “form valuable citizens to the state” (as Baron d’Holbach, a patron of the French philosophes, put it). With the rise of nationalism children were seen as future citizens and patriots whose education must be carefully supervised to insure proper results. “Thus,” wrote Charles Duclos in 1750, “it is patent that in Spartan education, the first task was to form Spartans. In the same way, the sentiments of citizenship must be inculcated in every state; among us, Frenchmen must be formed, and in order to create Frenchmen, we must first work to form men.”

Montesquieu, in his immensely influential Spirit of the Laws (1748), set the stage for a good deal of Enlightenment thinking about children, the state, and education. If a democratic republic is to survive, it must imbue its citizens with civic virtue – “a love of the laws and of our country,” a love that elevates the public interest above private interests. Montesquieu praised Spartan education for its ability to produce virtuous citizens, and he left no doubt that this should be the central task of education in a republic: “Everything therefore depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education.”

Another formative influence on Enlightenment thinking was J.J. Rousseau, another fan of the Spartan model. In his essay on Political Economy (1758), Rousseau echoed Plato’s objections to free market education. The state should not “abandon to the intelligence and prejudices of fathers the education of their children, as that education is of still greater importance to the State than to the fathers.” Public education is needed to insure that citizens “will do nothing contrary to the will of society.” Children should be taught “to regard their individuality in its relation to the body of the State, and to be aware, so to speak, of their own existence merely as part of that of the State….”

The argument that children belong to the state is found even among American champions of state education. In 1786, Benjamin Rush, an early advocate of American independence who became known as the “father” of American psychiatry, wrote: “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.” “A system of national education,” argued Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) in 1790, will “implant in the minds of American youth…an inviolable attachment to their own country.”

This theme dominated the thinking of many nineteenth-century American educators. Systems of public education, declared an Illinois superintendent of schools, should be “conceived, designed, and carried out with direct and persistent reference to the maintenance and stability of the existing political order of the government.” A New Hampshire superintendent of public instruction argued that it is proper for government to provide education “when the instinct of self-preservation shall demand it.” A U.S. commissioner of education maintained that the individual “owes all that is distinctly human to the state” and that government education is “a means of preservation of the state.” The government should provide education, echoed a California superintendent, “as an act of self-preservation”; children “belong not to the parents but to the State, to society, to the country.”

Similar reasoning carried into the twentieth century. According to a 1914 bulletin of the U.S Bureau of Education, “The public schools exist primarily for the benefit of the State rather than for the benefit of the individual.” This is the logic that justified compulsory attendance laws. As the New Hampshire Supreme Court put it in 1902:

Free schooling…is not so much a right granted to pupils as a duty imposed upon them for the public good. If they do not voluntarily attend the schools provided for them for the public good, they may be compelled to do so. While most people regard the public schools as the means of great advantage to the pupils, the fact is too often overlooked that they are governmental means of protecting the state from consequences of an ignorant and incompetent citizenship.

Perhaps the most chilling description of the role of state education came from the influential progressive sociologist Edward Ross (1866-1951):

To collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading board, exhibits a faith in the power of suggestion which few people ever attain to. And so it happens that the role of the schoolmaster is just beginning.

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