Aristotle, Impractical Utopian


Aristotle’s Politics, Book 8:

No one will doubt that the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution. The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives […]
And 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 — not as at present, when every one looks after his own children separately, and gives them separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best; the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all. Neither must we suppose that any one 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.

The contemporary practice of education in Aristotle’s time contrasted sharply with his proposed utopian ideal of uniform state-driven and -sponsored education. Athens, as described in Kenneth J. Freeman’s 1907 essay “Schools of Hellas” had very little regulation of education: attendance was voluntary; the acquisition of reading skills was an obligation of citizenship, but the means were left to parents and students; home-education was an accepted and normal process. School hours were set so as to permit children to travel to and fro during daylight hours. Otherwise, it was subject only to that natural regulation which is engendered via voluntary exchange among customers and providers. Athens must have been doing something right, since they produced some of the most remarkable philosophers, mathematicians, and authors in the history of the world.

Now why would Aristotle, who learned in one way – “when every one looks after his own children separately” – advocate a completely different model? It could be that he offered this utopian ideal for its own compelling merits, or perhaps such a utopian ideal would be most pleasing to the ears of his employer King Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander, who later became “the Great.”

Whenever government controls education, this might lead to the lofty ends cited by Aristotle, but it certainly will be more conducive to the ends of the government itself, and ultimately to “the rise of the educational security state”, to borrow the subtitle of Joel H. Spring’s text, Pedagogies of Globalization.

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