Headlines with James Nelligan

(Musings from my fellowship, Teachers College, Columbia University)

At university, I was transported by the drama of Plato’s Apology, animated by Socrates’ admonition that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I was subsequently drawn to Aristotle, to his Nicomachean Ethics, and most especially to his notion of εὐδαιμονία. This curious word is usually translated as happiness, not as we generally conceive of it, but as goal and state of being, both journey and destination. A more precise interpretation of eudaemonia, perhaps as Aristotle intended, is to flourish. While this take on meaning certainly gets us closer to Aristotle’s thinking, I find a literal translation—eu, good, and daimōn, soul or spirit—more compelling and profound, and more in keeping with the scope and intent of his project—the pursuit of a moral life in a moral universe. If this is to be our higher purpose, to be a good soul, to engage with and in virtue(s) so as to overcome the vagaries of our mean existence, then it stands to reason that any education—the development of mind, body and spirit—is by definition moral activity in both a personal and communal sense.

In educational circles, it is vogue to talk of holistic education, and yet in practice we treat the moral dimensions of formal education as add on—so many words on a poster, a gathering every so many cycles. We presume a false binary, an expense to be paid in time, a choice of content rather than character. We defer to the former as a sign of our devotion to rigor, much to the detriment of the latter and any pretense of real commitment to the moral development of our students. This problem then speaks to a need for a clearer definition of what an “education” is, or rather, what an education should be in both pragmatic and moral terms. More precisely, we need, as seminal educator John Dewey contends, “...a genuine faith in the existence of moral principles which are capable of effective application.”

In both his Metaphysics and Ethics, Aristotle challenges the rote and orthodox, that which dulls the senses and so easily metastasizes in formal academics. He also takes a few shots at the keepers of tradition, the so-called experts and authorities, they who shape, dispense, and inhibit the construction of individual and shared knowledge, and more precisely, the pursuit of personal meaning. For Aristotle, cultivating habits of mind is a moral proposition, a means to achieving eudaemonia. It matters not how much we come to know in toto if the knowing is without virtue, “For no function of man has so much permanence as virtuous activity” (Ethics). In Aristotle, we are encouraged to cultivate both mind and character, for each can be expressions of positive virtue, plus unum sint. 

Michele de Montaigne, one of the most insightful and enduring philosophers of the French Renaissance, argues in his masterful essay On Educating Children that any substantive education has to be lived in order to be fully realized. Montaigne is concerned with the formation of one’s judgement, for “...we are cramped and confused inside ourselves; we can see no further than the ends of our noses.” Montaigne speaks not only to an urgent need for a child’s “frequent commerce with the world” as they learn and grow, but to their forging a crucial commitment to truth in moral terms— “Above all, let him throw down his arms and surrender to truth as soon as he perceives it, whether that truth is born at his rival’s doing or within himself from some change in his ideals.” In this age of post truth, Montaigne’s words are a clarion call to all educators to ensure not only that we raise a generation to think for themselves, but that we teach our students to listen with care and humility. This charge is by definition moral, for it attunes our purpose towards intentional recognition of the needs of and value in others. Failure to do so risks teaching students to live after their life is over (Educating). 

Dewey, in his essay Moral Principles in Education, similarly contends that “the business of the educator,” and by extension the purpose of education writ large, “...is to see it that the greatest possible number of ideas acquired by children...are (done so) in such a vital way that they become moving ideas, motive forces in the guidance of conduct.” Of particular interest is his use of the term vital, for it connotes both purposeful action and meaning making. Dewey is concerned with formal education’s preoccupation with the idea that, “...nothing is worth doing in itself, but only as preparation for something else, which in turn is only a getting ready for some genuinely serious end beyond.” This ‘ends’ orientation leads inexorably to a fixation on content and product, rather than ideation, iteration, reflection and process. Such an orientation leaves little to no space for meaning making, nor for the crucial conversations that beget a moral compass and forge a moral compact within and across communities. Worse still, this species of education, risks leaving, “...an educational vacuum in which anything can happen.”

If we presume that an education must include a sensitivity to and intentionality towards moral development, how then do we locate morality squarely within our implicit and explicit curriculum. More precisely, if virtue, “...dwells in life itself, in moments of challenge, confusion, doubt, and confrontation that call upon whatever capacities of responsiveness the person embodies” (Hansen, Becoming), how then do we develop children's critical capacities to respond and reflect and learn from their experiences in positive and beneficial ways, inside the classroom and beyond? Some part of the answer lies in our curricular engagements, in substance and delivery, and in our commitments to critical inquiry and critical reflection. Some part of the answer lies in our socialization processes, in how we communicate values and mission. Some part of the answer lies in the colleagues we invite to share in our journey. Ultimately, education, in keeping with the esteemed Dr. Dewey, should be a wellspring for “experiences worth living.” We cheapen any education wherein we fail to educate the soul.