THE COMMON SENSE CASE – ii. The Noble Ideal of State-Controlled Education


The issue at hand is of the utmost importance, as we are talking about the most determinative institution in any society. It therefore behooves us to quit our stale practical realm for a moment—our degraded reality of teachers unions, political correctness, relativism, entitlements, and the trashy combination of exhibitionism and voyeurism that we pass off as culture—and breathe the fresh mental air of a more rational age.

It was none other than Aristotle himself who provided the strongest common sense case for state-controlled education as a means to societal self-preservation; and I mean strongest not only in the sense of being the most logical but also the most moral. Latter-day public school advocacy, to the extent that it transcends unthinking presumption, is invariably political and disingenuous, whereas Aristotle, as always, is the model of impeccable honor and good faith in his reasoning, seeking what is true and good, and not merely what will serve his petty advantage or vanity. I am therefore in no way inclined to derive pleasure from being a contrarian where The Philosopher is concerned, or trivially to suggest that his ideas are inapplicable to modern problems—quite the contrary. In other words, far from dismissing his view as antiquated, I am tempted to conclude that if he cannot persuade me of the necessity of state-controlled education, no one can.

In Politics,[1] he argues that only legislative control of the goals and general content of learning can guarantee the rearing of men who will sustain a desired form of government. Leaving education in the hands of families is, he suggests, leaving too much of a political community’s future to chance. The good government must take pains to outline and enforce a curriculum directed to the production of healthy and virtuous citizens.

[F]or the exercise of any faculty or art a previous training and habituation are required; clearly therefore for the practice of virtue. 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 everyone 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 city-state, and are each of them a part of the city-state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole. In this particular as in some others the Lacedaemonians are to be praised, for they take the greatest pains about their children, and make education the business of the city-state.[2] 

Thus, the purpose of public education, the only justification for its institution, is to foster virtue. Of course, any advocate of state-controlled schooling may say the same thing, but meaning it is quite another matter, as we shall see. As a virtuous soul is the goal, he argues, the subjects taught must be only those suitable to promoting this end. It is here that we see the difference between a philosopher honestly thinking through an issue and a powermonger seeking to manipulate a population for his own interests.

There can be no doubt that children should be taught those useful things which are really necessary, but not all useful things; for occupations are divided into liberal and illiberal; and to young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without vulgarizing them. [Note: “useful to them.”] And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is vulgar; wherefore we call those arts vulgar which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind. There are also some liberal arts quite proper for a freeman to acquire, but only in a certain degree, and if he attend to them too closely, in order to attain perfection in them, the same evil effects will follow.[3]

Even allowing for our instinctive discomfort with Aristotle’s typically Hellenic low regard for technical training and remunerable skills, this is a profound observation that the reader would do well to bear in mind as we examine the leading thinkers in the development of modern public schooling. Holding Aristotle’s public education advocacy up next to John Dewey’s, for instance, provides an object lesson in the difference between philosophy and sophistry, love of wisdom and love of power. The key point of emphasis here is that, to the degree that virtue is the goal of the process, the chief corruption to avoid is excessive specialization. The legitimate purpose of true education, whether public or private, is not to produce “useful” citizens—that is, subservient humans whose own personal well-being is to be sacrificed to state utility—but rather good and happy men. For it is only through such means that the just regime’s legitimate interest, namely the common good, may be served. Indeed, in a statement that might strike the modern reader as so out of step with today’s authoritarian spirit as to be genuinely jarring, Aristotle completes his general account of what public education should be with the following:

The object also which a man sets before him makes a great difference; if he does or learns anything for his own sake or for the sake of his friends or with a view to excellence, the action will not appear illiberal; but if done for the sake of others, the very same action will be thought menial and servile.[4]

The principle expressed here stands directly opposed to our own progressive moral indoctrination. The purpose of true learning, as of living, is self-development, excellence. The purpose of today’s schooling, reinforced in every imaginable way, both theoretically and practically, is precisely to reduce everyone to what Aristotle calls the “menial and servile” condition. Our compulsory schooling is born of, and seeks to perpetuate, the perspective that learning or doing “for one’s own sake or for the sake of one’s friends” is the essence of immorality. Aristotle’s earlier declaration that all citizens “belong to the city-state” must be understood in this light. Men do not simply belong to any state, merely by default; that is, we are not essentially property of the collective, or of the tyrant. Rather, the citizen as such belongs, in principle, to a good state as such, which means a state governed for the good of its citizens. Aristotle is speaking of men as political animals, naturally suited to seeking their fulfillment within a virtuous civil order. He is not careful to distinguish this from our modern sense of “belonging to the state”—self-obliterating collectivism—because it would hardly have occurred to a Greek thinker to imagine this latter sense could be upheld as a tenable moral position. For Aristotle, as, in fact, for Western man in general prior to the progressive era, to seek one’s own genuine and rational good is both natural and virtuous. By contrast, today’s primary moral principle—living for the good of the collective, without regard for one’s own interest—might be classified by the Greeks as a form of morbidity, the “menial and servile” perspective of something not quite fully human. And that, in essence, is what our new, advanced forms of tyranny seek to produce: citizens who have been reduced to the not quite fully human—men trained to serve and be useful, rather than to seek completion and happiness.

So here we have the serious case for public education—opposed in every essential detail, I must emphasize, to the rationalizations offered by the men who gave us modern compulsory schools, as we shall see in detail as we proceed. If we have a good and virtuous political arrangement, and responsible leaders dedicated to the common good, then these leaders ought to take responsibility for ensuring that all children are raised with care to promote the maintenance of virtue in the community. In fact, Aristotle specifies that the realization of a good and successful public education arrangement presupposes virtuous and rational legislators attentive to the preservation of a civil society. As he observes in the Nicomachean Ethics[5]:

Now it is best that there should be a public and proper care for such matters; but if they are neglected by the community it would seem right for each man to help his children and friends towards virtue, and that they should have the power, or at least the will, to do this.[6]

This stipulation clearly implies that if virtue—not some nebulous “good of society,” but individual virtue—is not the goal and result of state-regulated learning, then there is no justification for public involvement in education at all, and the endeavor ought to be left to the private sphere. Aristotle, arguably the best friend state education ever had, explicitly rejects the idea that education ought to be in state hands merely by default, independently of its efficacy in providing for the raising of good men. In fact, he goes much further:

For as in cities laws and prevailing types of character have force, so in households do the injunctions and the habits of the father, and these have even more because of the tie of blood and the benefits he confers; for the children start with a natural affection and disposition to obey. Further, private education has an advantage over public, as private medical treatment has; for while in general rest and abstinence from food are good for a man in a fever, for a particular man they may not be; and a boxer presumably does not prescribe the same style of fighting to all his pupils. It would seem, then, that the detail is worked out with more precision if the control is private; for each person is more likely to get what suits his case.[7]

In other words, Aristotle’s overall position on public versus private education appears to be that public would be preferable for the society, presuming an honorable government were to take on the task, but short of such a government—that is, one comprised of good and sincere statesmen—education ought to be left to private families, because these may at least be counted on to act for the good of the child, and what is more, they will be better able to distinguish and provide for the specific learning needs of their own children. This point cannot be stressed forcefully enough, as it is easily overlooked in comparisons between classical public education advocacy and that of our own age. Aristotle’s plan for state education, and even Plato’s more radical musings in The Republic, presuppose—indeed, demand—a state governed rationally and with wisdom, and rulers dedicated to the best interests and well-being of the citizenry, rather than to their own material advantage or the production of “useful” underlings. This overriding condition was to be an essential property of the well-governed polis, and was hardly a default presupposition.

The Greek advocates of public schooling also presumed one other condition the importance of which cannot be overstated: small, independent states. State-controlled education is a very different animal when designed and regulated entirely at a local level, for several key reasons. First, the highest-ranking managers of the system will necessarily be visible members of the community, and therefore directly answerable to the citizenry, who are their neighbors. In addition, the curriculum, both academic and moral, will be more likely to answer to local needs, beliefs, and traditions. Furthermore, the purely polis-controlled system will be calibrated to foster stronger ties to the local community, rather than to weaken real human feelings in favor of the generic “justice” of abstractions like “universal brotherhood,” which only serve to alienate people from their real human context, meaning from genuine feelings of connectedness and mutual concern, which in turn means from their own souls.

To be generous to the concept of state-controlled education, then, we might say that the Greek city-states were ideally configured to attempt such a project, because they were not only small communities but also, and most significantly, self-governing states. That is, there was no higher level of government above the polis that might gradually usurp local authority over education in the name of equalizing standards and results. Thus, the biggest step toward the ultimate corruption of state-provided schooling—the relinquishing of exclusively local control—was virtually impossible in classical Greece. (And it is noteworthy that Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong advocacy of some limited form of public—but non-compulsory—schooling sought to entrench this same severe decentralization artificially, by statute.[8]) To state the obvious, that structural buffer against tyrannical expansion no longer exists; the pull of “greater oversight,” uniformity, increased funding from higher levels of government, and expert guidance in the name of supposed national interests has long since destroyed any quaint fantasies of locally-controlled public schools.

Let us pursue this line of reasoning a little further. If education means anything, it means the individual soul’s development from its original condition of material isolation toward its proper interaction with, or participation in, the cosmos. Family is an individuated soul’s first and most natural means of practical connection to the cosmos, an institution grounded in the innate human desire for completion and continuity. Friendship is a more spiritual fulfillment of family’s promise, a connection that transcends the boundaries of isolated individuation entirely at the level of soul, which means in the realm of virtue and reason. Political community, however, is a more abstract and (perhaps contra Aristotle) artificial connection, based less on love and need than family, less on reason and freedom than friendship—and hence more susceptible to corruption in motives and in means than either of the others. The Greek thinkers insisted that a well-organized polis should be small—smaller than a small city of today—precisely to ensure that it remain plausibly analogous to a large family, and citizenship recognizably akin to a community of friends. The larger the community, the more unaccountable the rulers to the ruled, the less plausible any real feelings of mutual concern and common interest among the citizens, and therefore the more untenable any general, organized rebellion in the event of institutional corruption. (At the end of the Peloponnesian War, for example, a group of sympathizers with the victorious Spartans, the infamous Thirty Tyrants, were granted governance of Athens and disarmed most of the citizenry. Barely a year later, an uprising left the Thirty dead or exiled, and Athenian democracy restored.) Contrary to our modern self-reassurance, electronic mass communication and high-speed travel do not expand the relative dimensions of acceptable smallness (except in the least important way, geographically); rather, they merely expand the reach and improve the grip of oversized government. When “fellow citizens” becomes an abstraction without comprehensible content, and government a faceless monolith of uncountable millions and uncontainable proportions, it is clear that the intermediary position the state might have held between family and cosmos is forsaken, and that any analogy between citizenship and friendship disintegrates. The state, in the modern psyche, is not a conduit to the universe, or an intermediary between private men and the divine. It has rather supplanted the cosmos. The legitimacy of the state’s authority to raise a community’s children, dubious under ideal (i.e., locally limited) conditions, is simply beyond the bounds of reasonable consideration under modern political realities. “The state” no longer means what it meant for the ancients, and hence the best moral argument for compulsory state education dissolves.

In any case, it is telling that few examples of anything resembling what we would call state education were available for Aristotle’s observation; education was, as he himself notes, strictly a family matter throughout most of the classical Greek world, and certainly in Athens itself. One detailed study of Greek education summarizes the Athenian schools this way:

The schoolmasters opened their schools as private enterprises, fixing for themselves the fees and the subjects taught. The parents chose what they thought a suitable school, according to their means and the subjects which they wished their sons to learn. Thus Sokrates says to his eldest son Lamprokles, “When boys seem old enough to learn anything, their parents teach them whatever they themselves know that is likely to be useful to them; subjects which they think others better qualified to teach they send them to school to learn, spending money upon this object.”[9] This suggests that the poor may frequently have passed on their knowledge of letters to their sons without the expense of a school. But all this was a private transaction between parent and teacher. The State interfered with the matter only so far as to impose certain moral regulations on the schools and the gymnasia, to fix the hours of opening and closing, and so forth, and to suggest that every boy should be taught his letters.[10]

Having seen very little of genuine public education, then, perhaps Aristotle’s atypical idealism on this matter may be excused. Be that as it may, it is quite obvious that our moment of spiraling de-civilization and entrenched administrative state cynicism would qualify as the extreme case of what he terms “proper care for such matters” being “neglected by the community.” The community, in our case, has lost all direction on questions of what Aristotle calls moral and intellectual virtue—the natural aims of a human being—and thus fails to meet his justifying condition for establishing a public education system in the first place. Indeed, “system” may be a misleading term for what Aristotle seems to have in mind. His focus is primarily on which subjects ought to be taught, and why, rather than on who should teach them, or exactly how. Of course his schools would necessarily be organized at the polis level, and no more broadly. Furthermore, he does not appear to have intended any truly universal standardization of means and outcomes, and certainly had no notion of scoring or ranking students hierarchically, a practice which would serve no useful purpose in education aimed at cultivating good citizenship, moral virtue, and intellectual self-sufficiency, i.e., happiness. We may therefore conclude that while he recommends legislative control of the curriculum, he certainly would not approve of any modern government school system, aimed as these invariably are at the two goals he rejects, excessive specialization and moral servility.

It is also extremely noteworthy that the most highly developed model of state education in Greece’s classical period was that of Sparta[11]—a city admired by Aristotle, as by Plato, for its ability to marshal wartime forces. Aristotle nevertheless also chastises Spartan education for its failure to address the deepest needs of intellectual and moral development.[12] Had he had access to many further examples of state-controlled schooling, one might suppose that his typical predilection for empirical and historical observation would quickly have led him to realize that this essential flaw was not specifically Spartan, but rather intrinsic to the practical reality of state education as such.

More importantly, and I would say this point is central, the perspective of time has revealed that everything that made classical Greece truly world-historical, some would say the summit of human civilization, was the product of other city-states, and not Sparta.[13] That is, notwithstanding Aristotle’s admiration for Sparta’s unified purpose, civic courage, and fighting prowess—the sort of thing state education might be expected to do well, in effect military training—history shows that Greece’s real and unprecedented peaks of intellectual, artistic, and political achievement were entirely the fruit of what we would call “private education,” wisely maintained continuously in the greatest of her city-states, Athens, despite the misguided urgings of her two greatest philosophers.

As the idiosyncratic but insightful nineteenth-century writer Thomas Davidson noted: 

[I]t is not a little remarkable that, while many of the first thinkers of Greece, including Plato and Aristotle, advocated an entirely public education, Athens never adopted it, or even took any steps in that direction. It seems as if the Athenians felt instinctively that socialistic education, by relieving parents of the responsibility of providing for the education of their own children, was removing a strong moral influence, undermining the family, and jeopardizing liberty…. No liberty-loving people, such as the Athenians were, would consent to merge the family in the State, or to sacrifice private life to public order.[14]

 The same, in essence (though to varying degrees), may be said of Renaissance Europe and Elizabethan England, when early modernity established the artistic, philosophical, and scientific foundations of civilization’s new epoch; of the Britain of the Industrial Revolution, when men planted the seeds of unprecedented general prosperity, radically transfiguring the world’s politico-economic aspect; and of America at the time of Independence, when courageous thinkers made common cause with ordinary decent men in establishing a new form of republican government, built on a foundation of both ancient and modern philosophical genius, and designed to preserve man’s natural freedom as no previous form of government ever had. (I must add that my phrase “courageous thinkers” may strike the reader as almost amusingly oxymoronic, but in fact it only became so during the era of public schooling—I refer you to my hypothetical “sober” critic.)

Seen from this perspective, the fact that the seemingly humane pursuit of universal public education is arcing toward modernity’s moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and economic bankruptcy is not as paradoxical as we might be given to imagine. In truth, we ought perhaps to find it strange that we ever thought government-administered schooling could lead to anything else, in the end. For all the noblest hopes and intentions in the world cannot alter humanity’s natural frailty, nor deny the destructive logic of the corrupted system, which is increasingly irreversible in proportion to the system’s universality: The fewer the systems, the wider the dissemination of poison from above.

Therefore, if you hope to salvage a civilization from today’s moment of disintegration, you must begin where all civilization begins, namely with education. And the first principle of the renewed educational world must be the most prosaic wisdom of all: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket—especially if that basket belongs to the state.


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[1] Aristotle, Politics, translated by Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885, cosmetically edited), available online at

[2] Ibid. VIII.1, 1337a.

[3] Ibid., VIII.2, 1337b.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by W.D. Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925, reprint 1984), available online at

[6] Ibid., X.9, 1180a.

[7] Ibid., X.9, 1180b.

[8] George H. Smith, “Thomas Jefferson on Public Education, Part 1,” (April 3, 2012),

[9] Xenophon, Memorabilia, ii.2.6.

[10] Kenneth J. Freeman (edited by M.J. Rendall), Schools of Hellas: An Essay on the Practice and Theory of Ancient Greek Education from 600 to 300 B.C., Second Edition (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1907), 58-59.

[11] “Spartan education was entirely conducted by the State, at the expense of the State, and for the ends of the State. It differed in this respect from nearly every other system of Greek education.” Thomas Davidson, Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892), 45. (Hereafter Davidson.)

[12] Cf. Politics VIII.4, 1338b.

[13] Cf. Davidson, 44: “Sparta accordingly never produced a poet, an historian, an artist, or a philosopher of any note. Even the arrangers of her choruses were foreigners.”

[14] Davidson, 63.

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