The miseducation of students (Week 3)

 In response to:

Book VIII of Aristotle’s Politics

Aristotle, Politics, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Clarendon Press, 1885.

Early in Book 8, Aristotle applauds the Lacedaemonians, but in part 4 he criticizes them for brutalising their children, and makes a more general comment about the narrowing of possibility associated with a certain kind of education: “And parents who devote their children to gymnastics while they neglect their necessary education, in reality vulgarize them; for they make them useful to the art of statesmanship in one quality only, and even in this the argument proves them to be inferior to others.” Aristotle’s preference for ‘liberal’ education is linked to this ideal of multi-functionality and well-roundedness. Is this aim reflected in the approach to education that you see in your practice?


The task of how society educates its young is of utmost importance to its continuity as a whole. Aristotle makes this clear in Part I of Book 8 when he writes, “For each government has a peculiar character which originally formed and which continues to preserve it. The character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy; and always the better the character, the better the government.” In stressing the importance of tradition, he implies that there are inherent characteristic within the monocultures of Greek city-states that unite the people within them and leads them to preserve and defend it from outside threats/influences. By also pointing out the need to improve upon that tradition through virtue and higher (liberal) education, I think Aristotle is stressing that cultures are living entities that have certain requirements in order to continue on into the future or risk withering away or being taken over by a culture that does possess those requirements. However, improvement hinges on how deeply the citizens relate to the corresponding myth/story within the culture (and how worthy their culture is of being improved) in addition to whether the right framework is available to pursue such improvements . Aristotle initial praise for the Lacedaemonians I think is based on their deeply held belief that the wisdom of the past must be passed on, although largely confined to athletic knowledge, which is the reason for his later criticism of them in Part IV.   

The well-roundedness Aristotle is seeking I think creates, to take a term from Nassim Taleb, an anti-fragile society, where stress/setbacks actually make the whole stronger. This ideal, aided by a liberal arts-based education, I believe is largely lacking today, as Taleb thinks we are actually over-educating our youth at the expense of teaching them practical/useful skills for the real world, while a significant portion of students don’t see relevance in what they are learning. Thus, the disconnect between the real world and the education students are receiving makes them just as susceptible as the brute to the "art of statesmanship" (Part IV), which I see as the manipulative tactics of both government and mainstream media to exert improper influence on an intellectually ill-equipped public.

All of this has helped give energy to the ‘unschooling’ movement as well as antifragile education in response to the perceived failings of modern education. I do think teacher would very much want to take the time and explore issues more deeply, but curricula are set up in such a way where time constrains and subject matter don't allow for a deeper inquiry into the underlying metaphysics and epistemology. All of this is in addition to other problematic issues, including reduced physical education time, less recess, banning physical contact sports (dodgeball, tag), participation medals for all, an inability to fail students, administrators taking the side of parents over their teachers and parents overemphasizing grades at the expense of well-being. To realize there is a problem, all one must do is look at the rise in mental health disorders among youth and ask if this is a sign of a healthy society producing well-rounded individuals. Although I largely stressed the role of schools, it is much more complicated and involves many other stakeholders if things are to change. Perhaps incorporating philosophy for children is a starting point.   


Steve Hawkins teacher May 17, 2019, 2:51 AM

Hi Jeff, You’ve condensed a lot of ideas into a few paragraphs. I’ll make a couple of quick points about Aristotle in connection with your discussion of Taleb, and then raise a question about your own view. 1) I don’t know Taleb, but I followed the link to the conversation about education. A point-by-point comparison with Aristotle’s views would be instructive, since there are things in common here. There is a fair measure o truth in the old cliché that Plato is more idealistic and Aristotle more of a hard-headed realist. Aristotle is interested in the actual conditions and needs of existing political communities, and he wouldn’t disagree with Taleb that productive, market-driven societies will need entrepreneurs. On the other hand, Aristotle (though favourable to private property) was opposed to money-making as a practice, and would not have agreed with Taleb’s suggestion (in the article at least) that economic productivity should be the guiding principle determining the shape of a society or the roles of the various citizens. Productivity and wealth have some importance for Aristotle, but they are not ultimate aims, in his view. And certainly some of the more influential Aristotelians in recent years – including one, Alasdair MacIntyre, who gave a lot of attention to the concept of tradition you discuss – are extremely critical of liberalism and capitalism. 2) I’m not sure from what you say just how much of Taleb’s view you would accept, but given that he favours professional specialisation, I wouldn’t have thought he would be very interested in the idea of philosophy for children. He seems to see more speculative, academic pursuits as alienating us from effective action in the world, whereas you seem to think that the ideal of well-roundedness is worth pursuing, and that there need be no tension between theoretical and practical knowledge. Is Taleb’s view more complex than it appears to be in the article, or do you simply part ways with him on this point?

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