Education for Political Animals

Part of a Symposium on the Agoge “Opening Salvo

A certain wing of the classical movement seems bent on reducing education’s transcendent purpose to an etherealized platitude. The argument goes something like this: education is about forming students’ souls through “truth, goodness and beauty,” not about preparing them for citizenship or vocations. It’s about “human formation,” not about instilling a particular kind of culture – especially if that culture would be in conflict with the zeitgeist.

Admittedly, this sounds high-minded enough. Classical education is certainly something broader, nobler and more ancient than the political agenda of the 21st-century American Right (though neither should it be assumed at odds with all parts of that agenda). And, as our world constantly reminds us, partisanship can easily co-opt the pursuit of truth. Resisting education’s collapse into a utilitarian and sophistic enterprise is an ancient and noble cause. Socrates championed it against Thrasymachus and his ilk long ago, and the debate has played out in every generation since. 

Ironically, however, those who spout these platitudes end up undermining the very thing they are attempting to protect: virtue as classical education’s end. There are in fact few things less “classical” than the notion that virtue formation excludes training for vocation or citizenship. Aristotle in Book VIII of the Politics is quite clear that education ought to be defined by the nature of the regime, and while it should inculcate more than the merely “useful,” he is clear that the useful is an integral part of a complete education. After all, is it possible for one to be virtuous without being useful?

It is also worth bearing in mind that Socrates’ main interlocutor in the Republic was Plato’s brother Glaucon – an elite and highly influential political figure.  Socrates’ aim in educating Glaucon was not only to form his student’s soul, but to serve his own political order and safeguard it against tyranny. If Socrates had cared only for shaping his students’ thoughts and affections without regard to how they lived in obedience to those thoughts and affections, he may have appeased his city’s governing elite and avoided death, but he would have furthered the deformation of his students’ souls. 

For all these reasons, while Agoge affirms wholeheartedly that education is preeminently about feeding the soul on “truth, goodness and beauty,” we insist that this necessarily involves political ends (“political” here understood in the ancient sense of ordering communal life). To be sure, education shapes human beings, but then man is fundamentally a  “political animal.” Socrates in Book IV of the Republic even shows that the soul is a kind of “polis” or city, and vice versa. As I have written for Agoge, “To order the soul in a particular way is, inescapably, to order the ‘polis’ in a corresponding fashion. The political order, after all, is the soul writ large, according to Socrates. Any education that seeks to establish reason’s government over the desires forms a political hierarchy of the wise over the vicious in the nation no less than in the soul.”

When politics are understood in this way, it should be quite clear that educators don’t get to choose whether their teaching is political or not. C.S. Lewis once observed that we don’t get to choose whether or not we read books. The only choice we get to exercise is whether we read good books or bad. Similarly, the greatest voices of the Western tradition unite in affirming that insofar as a teacher works to shape a type of soul, he is forming a citizen, and a city, of that same type. We as educators can either consciously and deliberately shape the kind of students and polity we are forming, or the culture will insidiously do it for us.

Nor was this merely the position of the ancients before Christian thinkers came along bearing the Gospel of the transcendent Christ. If anything, the Middle Ages went further than Aristotle in yoking education to temporal and professional aims. The major Renaissance humanists and Protestant Reformers doubled down on directing education towards political purposes, as did the American Founders, from Benjamin Rush to Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 19th century—perhaps under the influence of German idealism— that it became popular for elites to maintain that education is about transcendent goods as opposed to earthly ones.  C.S. Lewis critiques Matthew Arnold’s sympathy for this way of thinking, calling it a “most dangerous and most anti-Christian error.” 

The truth is that the Western tradition simply refuses to acknowledge a dichotomy between education’s transcendent and earthly ends. Education is at all times inherently political; how much more so in our 21st-century context? Schools that inculcate objective and transcendent truths in a postmodern and paganizing social order are ultimately and unavoidably engaged in forming a “parallel polis.” And this is a necessary consequence of forming virtuous political animals. 

Classical educators and schools must resist those who would drive a wedge between the transcendentals and the incarnational context within which students will live out their lives as citizens. When the latter is denied, students are prevented from ordering their actions and way of life around service to the former. In other words, Agoge seeks to restore politics to classical education not only for the good of our nation, but for the sake of virtue and well-ordered souls.

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Nathan Gill

Nathan Gill is an educator, writer, and graduate of Hillsdale College. He currently serves as the Academic Dean of Chapel Field Christian Schools in New York's Hudson Valley, where he lives with his wife and three children.

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