Essay / Misc.

Aristotle and Higher Education

The written works of Aristotle, what we have of them, contain ideas that have influenced generation upon generation of thinkers. His philosophical investigations are deep and provocative providing us with work that is the fodder for countless philosophical discussions. He is the intellectual father of thinkers like Averroes and Aquinas. Dante calls him, “The master of those who know.”

One of the most basic, and commonsensical, ideas that Aristotle puts forth is the concept of happiness. Early on in his seminal work, Nicomachean Ethics, he points out that happiness is the good at which all people aim. Clearly, this is the case. No one gets up in the morning and wishes for the bad or to be sad (some poets and artists I know come close). Even people who do bad things think that this will ultimately lead to a good for themselves. A hitman for the Mafia who causes the untimely death of some unsuspecting person does so because of the financial gain, and it is the money, which buys him things, that he believes will make him happy. Regardless of the objective nefariousness of the act, Aristotle believes that no one does what is bad only to be bad. He does believe that it is often the case that we think we are pursuing the good when, in actuality, we end up doing what is bad for ourselves and those around us.

The reason people pursue bad acts is because they have a misunderstanding of what could truly make them happy. To understand happiness humans must understand who they are. For Aristotle this means that we must use our rationality to pursue what is best, not just for us, but humans in general. This use of our rationality must be combined with action. So academic or ivory tower thinking that is not followed by action does not allow for pursuit of happiness, because to truly know something you must be able to, at the proper time, use that knowledge to act. Happiness turns out to be a result of knowledge plus proper actions.

So a life of thoughtfulness and study is important, but woefully incomplete without doing. This also implies that you are making judgments about the goodness or badness of an action. So when a person does X, you are able to, through your life of study and experience determine whether action X is good or bad.

The reason this is so important is that for thousands of years most individuals thought that you could understand what truth was, and that you could determine what was right or wrong. It is only recently, with the development of these prestigious institutes of higher learning that truth has no longer been understood to be a fundamental pursuit of education. The educational philosophy of Aristotle, and his intellectual children, are no longer seen as germane within today’s hallowed halls of academia.

Every year the University of Chicago gives a lecture to its incoming freshmen entitled the “Aims of Education”. This lecture is given, ostensibly, to describe what their next four years will be like at the university. In 1998, Professor John Mearsheimer was selected to give the “Aims of Education” speech, and he made it profoundly clear that truth is not a goal of the University of Chicago. In his speech he states: “There is a powerful bias at the University of Chicago against providing you with the truth about the important issues we study. Instead, we aim to produce independent thinkers who can reach their own conclusions.” So, it doesn’t matter what you think as long as you think well?

Mearsheimer points out that the University of Chicago is not alone in this bias, “Not only is there a powerful imperative at Chicago to stay away from teaching the truth, but the University also makes little effort to provide you with moral guidance. Indeed, it is a remarkably amoral institution. I would say the same thing, by the way, about all other major colleges and universities in this country.”

Aristotle would say that this is antithetical to the role of education which is to train students to have the proper likes and dislikes. To quote a somewhat more modern source, CS Lewis in Abolition of Man states that it is important to “believe that certain attitudes are really true, and others are really false…”

To train someone to think well without believing that conclusions matter seems incoherent. How do I know that I’m thinking well if my conclusions don’t follow from my premises? Yet, here is a tenured professor of a world-class institution stating that truth is not the goal of his university—and not just his university—but he believes all major universities in this country.

If higher education cannot enable us to understand normative truths about the world, and if a university education cannot enable us to live an ethical life—what is education for? Good academic work in the modern university is no longer about what is objectively true.

Knowledge inside of academia is now determined by discipline specific guilds who determine what counts as scholarship. There will be no external way in which to judge the veracity of the work that goes on at the university, because to do so would be to employ a means of evaluation that is antithetical to the modern purpose of the university—which is to not teach objective truth.

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