Perception as the Goddess of Intellect — Aristotelian Roots of Education and Creating a Flourishing Human Being

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all” Aristotle.

In Perception as the Goddess of Intellect: Aristotle’s Notions of Education, Aristotle’s view of primary education was described as consisting of a movement toward “goodness.” This goodness, according to Aristotle, can be divided in two parts, “goodness” of character and “goodness” of intellect. This essay is an extension of the former, contrasting Aristotle’s notions with the modern system of education. Building on Aristotelian thought on education and applying scientific discoveries and interventions, systemic solutions are offered to transform the education system to once again focus on creating flourishing human beings.

Modern education has, as its primary focus, two emphases. First, to deliver information to students and then test said “knowledge” gained, in an effort to gauge how much a learner has grown. Secondly, educational institutions are responsible for the “behavior” of students, thereby the institutions attempt to nurture citizenship. In the present system, this attempt has manifested itself in efforts to control the behavior of children through primarily authoritarian and behaviorist means. Let’s look at testing first, in light of Aristotle’s view of primary education.

Standardized testing seeks to elucidate the acquisition of knowledge through binary questions that produce data. The data is fed in to the system and then is used to compare one learner to another in order to generate a comprehensive view of learning across all children. These scores are used to rate students, teachers, and school districts on the success or their pedogogical system (which, by the way, is tied in to teacher salaries and school funding, but that is another article) (see The Emperor is Naked! Hegemony in Education). This score then becomes the reflective mark of the success of the learner in a given institution. There exists no category on standardized tests analyzing the learner’s ability to flourish, to understand or comprehend, to evidence a movement toward “goodness.” It is abundantly clear, even to the smallest child who is aware of their surroundings, that the intention of the “State” in education is for the learner to memorize the information and pass the test. From kindergarten forward, children develop an innate understanding that their job in the school system is “to pass the test.”

For the sensitive learner, the child who is “aware” of all around them, and learns by absorbing not only content, but sensations and intentions, namely the empathic child, this system narrows the learning field and “dumbs down” knowledge to its most basic components. The empathic child processes information through the emotional center of the brain, and through their senses, constantly looking for the connection of ideas and for relationships between the parts of information ( For this type of learner, which can comprise 15–20% of the learning population, the communication of the intention to get “the right” answer, is mind-numbing at the least, and counter-productive, at best. In the work of Elaine Aron, The Highly Sensitive Child, the author discusses a neurological process called “pause to check.” This is a theoretical concept which explains that some children will pause to assess all available information, past and present, to arrive at a thoughtful conclusion. This “pause to check” response needs to be appreciated and nurtured, particularly in young children, to help grow thoughtful, engaged, and conscientious learners. This is not a disability or a disorder, it is a “difference.” Yet, in the public system, this quality is cause for an IEP, labeled as a disability that needs to be corrected, and skirted off as a divergence from the status quo and thereby in need of “fixing.” There is no room for the empath in the public system. The consequence for this lack of space and understanding is laid at the feet of the child, as opposed to addressing the inequity and misdirection of the system. For Aristotle, the ability to “pause” and hold an idea in the mindspace is the mark of an educated mind. For Aristotle, laying the foundations for a sound mind and body set the building blocks for the achievement of “the good.” As the Father of Western Philosophy and Thought, the ideas of Aristotle can, in theory, be considered the building blocks for educational theory. Has the modern system of education forgotten the roots on which its soil was planted?

The second emphasis in most primary education systems is to create citizens, to grow a learner in to a productive member of society. Teachers are primarily responsible for student behavior. Let’s examine how the ideas of “goodness of character” have been instituted within the public system. Much organizational research has been focused on school culture and school environment, and the impact of creating a positive, productive and supportive environment. This concept of creating a positive school culture, eminating from Positivist Philosophy, has been watered-down to create an emphasis solely on “feeling good” and positive energy, missing the necessary components of applying logic, reason and humanistic principles to the underlying philosophical theory. While being positive in and of itself is a desirable social trait, this concept, taken to an extreme, can create an artificial environment that lacks substance and causation for the “positive energy,” creating an artificial utopian effect. This effect can serve to dismantle “humanity” and water down what it is to be a thoughtful and kind human being. Children, as well as all human being, are simultaneously simple and complex. Neurologically, children have an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex (reasoning center of the brain) and need gentle, consistent guidance in order to grow their brain from the bottom up and side to side, in an integrated manner. Dr. Dan Siegel has pioneered the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, a field that seeks to provide a rationale and methodology for neural integration. Dr. Siegel provides methods to support neurological growth from the lower, reptilian brain (concerned with basic survival and primitive reward systems) to the pre-frontal cortex (reasoning centers) and the left hemisphere (logical) and right hemisphere (creative) parts of the brain. Dr. Siegel has developed, through scientific inquiry and research, how to create a “better brain.” Yet little to none of this research is implemented in early childhood and primary education, where growing a “better brain” is supposed to be the main focus. Instead, most public systems are still relying on Skinnerian behavior modification methods to frame interventions and grow learners in to responsible, productive citizens. Rewards and punishments, and negative consequences, serve to satiate the lower, reptilian brain pathways and solidify fear-based pathways. The end result is a system based on fear and gratification, lacking underlying understanding, reason, and neurological connectivity. How far the system of education has digressed from Aristotelian notions of “goodness.”

There exists a large body of research on the importance of empathy and human connection/understanding as primary needs for human growth (see John Bowlby’s experiments on attachment). Empathy is a building block for the creation of a sound mind. The child who innately has a high capacity for empathy is at a disadvantage in the present logo-centric, consequence-based education system. Just as it is difficult to build a house without a strong foundation, likewise, it is difficult to grow an educated population without a strong emphasis on connection, which is fostered through empathy and compassion. Empathy is the ability to “put yourself in another person’s shoes,” while compassion is the action taken as a result of that empathy or understanding. A flourishing human being is cultivated out of an early experience with connected, gentle, and simultaneously empathetic and rational human connection. Aristotle emphasized pathos along with logos. Primary education must be focused on the foundational building blocks of a sound mind. Is it possible to re-focus the efforts in educating young minds toward creating the building blocks for understanding, both of the self and other, over the ability to answer binary questions correctly? Correct actions will flourish when the primary emphasis is placed on building thought-full learners.

Abraham Maslow was an American Psychologist who created a theory of psychological health, called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in successive order. Maslow’s theory highlights human growth and potential along a hierarchy, labeling the most basic needs (food, water, shelter) as prerequisites for achieving higher order needs. In other words, when the lower order needs are met, the human is free to achieve higher states of being. Physiological needs are primary and set a foundation for physical and cognitive development. Safety needs are the next set of needs in the hierarchy (security of: body, health (both physical and mental), morality, property, and family). Safety needs are met within the cultural system, they are predicated on connection within the larger social body (school, family, religious institutions). Children have a primary need to feel safe within these cultural systems in order to thrive. When educational institutions shift their focus away from satisfying these needs, in order to serve the “masters” of data and behaviorist control, the hierarchy becomes disjointed and the child remains stuck, attempting to fulfill a primary need and unable to advance in their development toward Love/ Belonging, Esteem, and ultimately Self-Actualization.

Aristotle believed that movement toward “goodness” should be the focus of education. This is not to be mistaken for a primarily “value-based” education. His writings and teachings, in essence, discussed creating a “mindset,” a perception in children to move toward “goodness” by engaging in activities that simultaneously seek to grow the mind, body, and soul. Children in public schools receive 20 minutes of recess per day. In the public system, much of the teaching has been replaced by video lessons, computer practice on foundational skills, and a focus on media during characteristically social times. How can children be expected to flourish in a disconnected and detached system where human engagement, engagement of the primary aspects of the human being, are usurped by engagement with non-human entities. Tech can be a valuable teaching tool, but only after the necessary components of human connection are met first, especially in primary education.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” Aristotle.

Writer, Licensed Psychotherapist, Clinical & Medical Hypnotherapist, Adjunct Psychology Professor, Masters work in Communication Theory, Change Advocate

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