If Music Be Food For Citizenship (Part I)
Aristotle and America
As Aristotle observed in Book 8 of his Politics, the education of children is the preeminent concern of the state, for the cultivation of the youth determines the continuity and stability of the political regime (1337a10-18).1 Education therefore should not only correspond to the political type of regime, e.g., a democratic education for democracies, but it also should correspond to the regime’s peculiarities as established at its founding. Thus a democratic education – the equivalent of the contemporary citizenship course – is not sufficient for Aristotle; rather, what would be required is an American citizenship course that is at the center of a school’s curriculum.
However, one of the biggest obstacles to this type of citizenship education is the looming threat of the state: the replacement of a genuine exploration of what constitutes American citizenship for state propaganda. Aristotle himself recognized this problem, as he stated that “the excellence of the state is of course caused by the citizens’ excellences and their share in its governance” (1332a33-34).2 One of purposes of education, perhaps its primary one, is the cultivation of intellectual and moral excellence of citizens who, in turn, will promote an improved political regime. In other words, the regime exists for the education of its citizens instead of education existing for the sake of the regime.
Recognizing that the state does not have a monopoly over excellence or knowledge, Aristotle rejects a pedagogy that merely parrots the clichés and myths of the regime; rather, the state must realize that standards of excellence and sources of knowledge exist outside of it and consequently its children should learn from them in order to make the state better. For example, the United States had codified slavery and segregation, but, when civil right leaders looked outside the state for the notion that all citizens should be afforded equal rights and then were able to persuade their fellow citizens of this idea, the republic had become a better regime. By appealing outside of the state, civil right leaders were able to educate the people to have better characters and thereby make the republic a better state.
Of course, the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction. When nothing is revered, valued, or respected about the state, its traditions, and founding, then there is no common standard for citizenship. When the American Founding Fathers are only dismissed as racist, misogynist, or economic elites; when representative government and the free market are automatically written off as forms of structural oppression; and when values like liberty, civility, and toleration are perceived as types of inauthentic existence; then the question needs to be asked what constitutes a citizen – what is held in common – in the state? Is the state then nothing more than a cauldron of subjective whims and differing opinions where nothing of value can be learned?
This is not to ask for an education where, say, the American Founding Fathers are placed upon a god-like pedestal; but it does not mean either that they are viewed solely as swindlers, fanatics, and exploiters. Certainly we can learn from the American Founders and even respect and admire them, while at the same time recognizing their faults and shortcomings. That the state does not have a monopoly over excellence and knowledge does not mean that the state has no possession of them whatsoever.
The state thus is placed in a paradoxical position. On the one hand, the state must draw upon its own reservoirs to educate children about their peculiar history, while, on the other hand, the state must be open to standards of excellence and sources of knowledge outside of itself, for these are places where citizens can learn about the regime’s shortcomings in the hope that they will seek to improve it. Aristotle recognized that a critique of the state was necessary, and could only come from a place outside of it, but he would disagree with those who think that the purpose of such a critique is the promotion of self-esteem rather than the start of a common project for all citizens to make the regime better.3
But with regards to the American polity, the question is to which state are we referring: federal, state, or local? Which of these forms are best for human flourishing? And is Aristotle’s Politics even an appropriate guide for us, as he wrote only about the polis and would reject both the state and federal forms of government as proper sites for political and pedagogical excellence?
What I will argue is that Aristotle’s conception of education as a common endeavor is necessary for the cultivation of a federal citizenship with the example of music pedagogy. Although this cultivation is a common one for all citizens, it should be administered – contrary to Aristotle’s recommendation – in an assorted of manners, such as state and non-state schools, private tutorials, and even home-schooling, because of the peculiar nature of our regime. In other words, the scale of instructing and receiving education should be at the most humane and effective level possible, i.e., the local, but its standards should be determined federally. As Tocqueville pointed out, this is one of the great geniuses of the American polity: the centralized administration of authority and the decentralized nature of its administration.4
The federal account of educational standards is probably not controversial in such subjects as mathematics, the natural sciences, and, as I will argue later, music. But with regards to the question of citizenship, or more broadly the social sciences and humanities, the matter becomes questionable, as some would argue that the United States was originally a con-federal government rather than a federal one and we should return to our origins. I am sympathetic to this endeavor, but I do not think it is practical in the foreseeable future: it may exist as a theoretical possibility but not as practical one. In the meantime, we should address the reality at hand, whether we comfortable or repealed by it, and try to make the regime better, which includes federal citizenship.
Secondly, to have common standards at the federal level does not preclude additional requirements at the state or local level. It is even possible to imagine that these additional requirements may conflict with some of the federal standards (again, most likely in the social sciences and humanities), and, over time, modify what these federal standards should be. Such an education may prompt citizens to ask the questions about size and scale and their commensurability with human flourishing. Given that the administration of education adopts a variety of forms here in the United States, there is no reason to see why additional perspectives could supplement federal ones.
The need for a common understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the federal government is therefore crucial because it is a reality in which we exist. Other than adopting philosophies of progressivism or utilitarianism, popular culture references, or simply commerce, we need an understanding of citizenship based on human excellence and flourishing if we desire continuity and stability in our regime. Aristotle’s account of education provides a possibility of such a path. This does not mean we have to accept all his recommendations, especially as he was writing for the polis and a not large republic, but his understanding of education as cultivating a common endeavor for all citizens can be a remedy to the current situation of fragmentation and can be adopted at the local level where most education transpires.
1. All in-text citations of Aristotle are from Loeb Classical Library edition. Aristotle. Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932). Translations are mine own.
2. This distinction between the cultivation of the excellent citizen and the excellent person who, in turn, becomes an excellent citizen is also underscored in Book III, chapter 4 of the Politics.
3. Aristotle would reject progressive accounts of education, such as Rousseau’s Emile, Montessori’s The Montessori Method, and John Dewey’s Democracy and Education in favor of liberal education (1338a32-34).
4. Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, 271-72 (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990).