Education Without Edification: Some Reflections on Ethics

Written by Dr. Jason Rheins on January 14, 2022

Matt Bateman has just completed the first run of our course on the history of education, and I had the pleasure of assisting him by providing research on the history of pre-modern education. One of the most striking features of education in earlier eras and in ancient education particularly, is the absolute centrality of moral training to the goals of pedagogy.

Ancient education was probably more successful in teaching basic literacy, musical proficiency and poetic appreciation, physical fitness and fighting skills than moral excellence, but overall excellence of character, aretē, was undeniably the highest goal for Greek education. Similarly, Roman education aspired to impart virtus. There were differing conceptions of what aretē amounted to, and active debates over how it might best be impressed upon a student. For example, in Plato’s Laches, several men (one, a distinguished general), discuss with Socrates how to teach their sons courage, and wonder whether having their sons learn specific skills (such as fighting in heavy armor) will be beneficial. Many believed that the poems of Homer offered the best moral exemplars for boys and young men, but philosophers such as Xenophanes and Plato considered these poems worthy of censorship for their illicit depiction of the gods and heroes. Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers go so far as to claim that the central purpose of the polis (the Greek city-state) is to make its citizens good, and they see public education as its most powerful tool in this regard.

When we come to education theories in the medieval and early modern periods, moral instruction or the shaping of character remains a major focus. Locke in Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Rousseau in his Emile both reflect on how a tutor can best instill good morals in his charges, and Rousseau, influenced by Plato, also considers how this might be effected on a much larger scale in his political writings.

Whether education was public and managed by the state, or private and conducted in the home or in a school, the expectation of theorists in principle and parents in practice was that educators would teach morals and that education would be morally edifying. The current, modern-day expectation is that (many) moral values should only be taught in the home, by parents, and not in the school by teachers. Historically speaking, this is incredibly anomalous.

In subsequent posts, we will discuss the causes and consequences of this unusual state of affairs. For now, it is simply worth noting that societies have always viewed values and codes of conduct as crucially important cultural legacies and character traits as vital outcomes in the upbringing of the young. It is debatable whether it is possible to educate at all without at least implicitly endorsing or highlighting certain values for the learner; what cannot be doubted is that the effort to remove values from education is extremely unusual.

N.B. A second cohort of The History of Education will be offered in February 2022. Click here for more information and to register.

Dr. Jason Rheins

Dr. Jason G. Rheins is a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In 2003 he received his BA with honors in Philosophy and Classical Studies from Stanford University. In 2010 he earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught or held professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, UNC Chapel Hill, St. John’s University, and Loyola University Chicago. He has published articles and book chapters on the history of philosophy, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics. He is currently completing a monograph on Plato’s theology.