Curren, Randall R. (2000). Aristotle on the Necessity of Public Education. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

256 pp.

$27.95 (Paper)       ISBN: 0-8476-9673-1
$79.50 (Cloth)       ISBN: 0-8476-9672-3

Reviewed by Jana Noel
California State University, Sacramento

May 17, 2002

A renewed interest in Aristotle has become apparent in a number of recent examinations and re-examinations of Aristotle by moral philosophers as well as feminists (such as Freeland 1998; Natali 2001; Tessitore 1996). Much of this recent work has focused on Aristotelian conceptions of ethics, politics, and justice. But there is a lack of scholarship on the importance that Aristotle places on the ideal of public education itself. Randall Curren's book fills this gap within the field of Aristotelian scholarship.

Curren's purpose for his book is to provide a "reconstruction of Aristotle's neglected account of education and its place in public life" (p. ix). Curren draws this reconstruction from Aristotle's views about political and ethical life, and focuses on the relationships between law, virtue, and education. Curren then uses this analysis to frame his discussion of contemporary issues such as educational equity and the moral content of education.

This book pulls together Curren's previous work of over a decade. Several chapters in the book are revised versions of previous articles and presentations on Aristotelian politics and ethics. He draws mainly from the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics, though he must reconstruct arguments which come from various remarks about education that have been scattered throughout several texts in order to make more clear for the reader the argument Aristotle is making for public education.

Reviewer's Conclusions

Curren is solidly grounded in philosophy, education, and political thought. In his book, Curren has successfully, interestingly, and effectively succeeded in his goals for his book. The text is both highly philosophical and mainly readable by a reader who lacks background in Aristotle.

Criticisms that will be laid out in this review lie less in the arguments undertaken by Curren and more in his approach to reading Aristotle. Curren presents his reconstruction of Aristotle through a political reading first and foremost. When he discusses moral and intellectual virtues, he discusses them in terms of their usefulness for creating and maintaining the law. However, another reading would be to present the reconstruction through an ethical analysis first, with politics coming later. This would put the discussion of education as contributing to the development of moral and intellectual virtues first, rather than emphasizing their contribution to law.

I must agree with Emily Robertson (2002), who stated that perhaps the reason why Curren places such a heavy importance on the political and legal framework for his discussion of education is because it would likely carry more weight with the policymakers that he would like to reach. The moral and ethical content of such education, which he puts a lesser emphasis upon, could be addressed more to the practitioners of education, the teachers.

Other criticisms will focus on Aristotle's and Curren's version of multicultural education as well as Curren's interpretation that education for employment would fulfill Aristotle's vision of justice.

Main Points

This review will focus on three main points – principles and arguments – within Curren's book. These points will be introduced here, followed by a summary of the points in each chapter that contribute to those arguments.

First, Curren remains consistently faithful to what he terms the principle of fidelity to reason. As Curren defines it, this principle has two main components: a respect for reason within ourselves and others, and the idea that instruction and persuasion must come before force. Curren introduces this in his first chapter, and consistently reinforces its importance throughout his discussion of Aristotle. Second, Curren in Chapter 3 (p. 80) lays out four main arguments regarding Aristotle's necessity of education. These four arguments frame the discussion in the rest of the work, and provide what I believe to be the most unique contribution of Curren's work in his discussions of Aristotle's vision of public education. These arguments come directly from Aristotle's Politics 1337, dividing 1337a10-31 into four distinct arguments, which he then labels and discusses in sections throughout the rest of his book. Curren is careful to discuss each argument distinctly, while also drawing the connections that necessarily link them all in Aristotle's sense of education. The four arguments are as follows:

1) "The Argument from Constitutional Requirements (CR). The neglect of education in polises harms their constitutions. The young should be educated toward each constitution, for the character proper to each both safeguards it and establishes it to begin with…And in all cases better character produces a better constitution (1337a10-18)."

2) "The Argument from the Origins of Virtue (OV). Again, for the exercise of any faculty or art a prior education and habituation are required; clearly therefore [these are required] for the practice of virtue (1337a18-21)."

3) "The Argument from a Common End (CE). And since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and its care public and not private…The training in things which are of common interest should be made common (1337a21-27)."

4) "The Argument from Inseparability (I). At the same time, one should not suppose that any of the citizens belongs to himself, but rather that each belongs to the polis…and it is natural for the care of each part to look to the care of the whole (1337a27-31)."

So Curren reconstructs these passages to claim that an argument for public education needs to consider 1) the relationship between character and the law, 2) the need for moral habituation into virtuous actions, 3) that the goal or end for the city is a unified end for all, and 4) that the whole of the polis should take part in the care of all.

Third, Curren's main conclusion is that his argument from the foundations of corrective justice (FCJ), which he develops throughout his book, provides the best argument for providing a public education. This argument says that part of the existence of the state is the providing of law and punishment. For the state to be able to expect its citizens to follow the law, and for itself to be able to hand out punishments justly, there must be some universal education for citizens to understand the law and develop the character needed to follow the law.

In summary, then, Curren provides a reconstruction of Aristotle's arguments, describing how education, virtue, and law are virtually intertwined. He then concludes that educational equity comes when citizens are educated together in order to work toward the best for the society.

Chapter 1: "Greek Paideia and Socratic Principles"

Curren begins in Chapter 1 with a discussion of whether the city has the right or the imperative to punish wrongdoers. Curren's response to this question is to claim that the first consideration is whether the wrongdoer has first been instructed in the laws of the city and in what should be the aim of the city – the good for the city and its people. Instruction should enable, as well, defiance of "bad law" by citizens who have learned how to determine if a law is worthy of following. If educational efforts fail to delete ignorance and wrongdoing, then the city should retain the right to punish. But first must come the instruction.

This, then, is where we see the beginning of the focus on what he is going to call the principle of fidelity to reason, which states that instruction and persuasion should come before force. As Curren writes, "Cities cannot justly demand the loyalty or voluntary obedience of citizens without creating the conditions for free and informed consent to their laws, nor can they establish a general right to punish lawbreakers without providing for the education of all citizens" (p. 34). The focus here is on reason, which is required in order to understand law. But Curren does include an ethical discussion as well, when he writes that since "The natural aim of a city is the highest good of its citizens, which consists of being wise, or having and exercising systematic moral knowledge"(p. 33), then cities should also encourage education related to the development of moral knowledge.

Chapter 2: "The Arguments of Plato"

In Chapter 2, Curren writes of the relationship between moral education and reason, within the realm of political science. Curren begins a discussion on the need for reason to overcome the passions, bringing in Protagoras' statements that those who are educated to have their reasoning overcome their passions are better than those whom he calls savages. But to help reason in its attempt to "prevail over the passions," it needs the support of ethical virtues such as phronesis and justice. But as Curren discusses these virtues at this point, they are not meaningful in themselves. Rather, in the Protagoras and the Republic, these are "essential means to the flourishing of reason" (p. 54).

Curren describes one of the educational undertakings that must occur for this self-control to develop. In a theme that is seen in Aristotle as well, Plato concludes that there must be a form of censorship with our youth in order for them to become fully morally developed. They should learn to admire what is admirable, learn to hate what is shameful, and learn to make these proper judgments. This will give them practice in being law-abiding.

Such censorship is one form of education for moral improvement. Curren distinguishes between the dialectic reasoning that can be undertaken by an elite group, such as the philosopher-kings of the Republic, and the non-elenctic form of reasoning that would provide a larger set of citizens with the opportunity to gain more complete moral development. This education could come from "divinely inspired lawgivers" who will teach the self-control needed that will make people "supremely easy to persuade along the path of virtue" (Laws, IV 718c) (p. 56). For Plato, the purpose of education is to provide "education from childhood in virtue, a training which produces a keen desire to become a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and be ruled as justice demands" (I 643e-44a) (p. 57).

Chapter 3: Groundwork for an Interpretation of Politics VIII.1

Curren begins his formal analysis of Aristotle's works in Chapter 3. His introduction of Socratic and Platonic principles in Chapters 1 and 2 lead well into his discussion of Aristotle. This is the chapter in which Curren introduces his four arguments described at the beginning of this review—"The Argument from Constitutional Requirements (CR), "The Argument from the Origins of Virtue (OV), "The Argument from a Common End (CE), and "The Argument from Inseparability (I). In addition, this chapter addresses the relationship between the state and education, the content of education, and how citizens can receive an education to take part in rule.

A very good conceptual analysis related to levels of regulation ensues on pp. 86-87. In this section, Curren proposes that perhaps the role of the state in education could be to sponsor education, or more strongly to mandate it by law, or finally even stronger to control what people do in both education and society. Curren believes that the mandating of specific instruction has been dismissed through his analysis in the text. He concludes this analysis by saying that Aristotle may have been saying indirectly in the Politics VIII that the state should sponsor mandatory instruction as well as exercise broad control, through law, over how people act.

In discussing levels of regulation, Curren also addresses the question of how ordinary citizens can become a part of the rule-giving in the state. Curren brings in the concept of phronesis, an ethical concept usually translated as practical wisdom. Curren describes Aristotle's view when he states that a greater right to share in rule comes with a greater share of practical wisdom, thus education should guide students toward the having of virtue, of phronesis.

And finally, Curren ends his Chapter 3 with an initial foray into the issue of educational equity. Aristotle, famously, argues that slaves are needed in the economy and that women should not be engaged in a public life. But in regards to the possibility of an education for all people, Aristotle is less clear. Curren proposes that while the city will only consider citizens to be equal partners in the creation of eudemonia – which is the good end for the city – it is still possible to interpret Aristotle as claiming that we should "regard all inhabitants of a city as entitled to share in some of its benefits that will promote their well-being" (p. 91). But these inhabitants could not be equal partners, and thus would not receive an equal education to male citizens. Curren concludes that all male citizens, regardless of social status, would "receive the same liberal education, which provides what is necessary of the practical arts, cultivates virtue, and aims above all to nurture the capacities of reason and intellect" (p. 92).

Chapter 4: "Why Education is Important"

Chapter 4 is directly about what it claims to be about: why education is important. In this chapter, Curren further elaborates the arguments from the origins of virtue (OV), then continues to point out the connections between the OV and the argument from constitutional requirements (CR). The main point of this chapter seems to be the laying out for us how the various arguments fit together.

Curren's argument from the origins of virtue (OV) states that both instruction and moral habituation lead to virtue. Curren expands this discussion with a useful analysis of three possible sub-arguments of the OV argument.

  • 1) The Argument from a City's Natural End. In this argument, Curren argues, "the natural aim of a polis and of political science is the highest good for human beings," which is a life in accordance with the highest virtue. But since "The practice of virtue requires prior education and habituation (OV)," then the polis must require education.

  • 2) The Appeal to Respect for Reason. Human beings naturally need "to respect the reason in themselves and others." This also, though, "entails a duty to encourage and cultivate one's own and other's rationality." And since "the cultivation of a human being's potential rationality entails the cultivation of virtue and requires education (OV)," then the polis must require education.

  • 3) The Argument from the Promotion of Happiness. "Legislators should promote the happiness of all citizens as much as possible." And since promoting citizens' happiness must also entail promoting their virtue, and since "The practice of virtue requires education and habituation (OV)," then the polis and its legislators must require education. (pp. 94-96)

Taken together, these three arguments create the claim that public education is required because it contributes to the city's natural end, because it creates a respect for reason, and because it helps to promote happiness.

Next Curren elaborates further on his previously laid out argument from constitutional requirements (CR). In what Curren calls the appeal to a desire for stable rule, if a legislator is going to be persuaded to work toward the good of the city's citizens, then there needs to be an appeal to his self-interest. The push within this argument is for legislators and citizens alike to value education. Educating toward better character will promote a better constitution, with the long-term outcome being "a stable orderliness in society" (p. 110), or constitutional stability.

And toward the end of this chapter, Curren ties Aristotle's rather well-known dictum of moderation in all things to contemporary education, as the book moves more and more toward tying the reconstruction into the contemporary debates about education. For the discussion of educational equity which permeates the book, Curren focuses on moderation of wealth. Curren ties Aristotle's concept of moderation to a better political environment:

Aristotle would seem to hold that education is important to securing a number of constitutional goods which contribute in turn to a city's capacity to promote the best life for its citizens: good order; stability; moderation or relative equality in wealthy; just, wise, and equitably distributed governance; and unity or social harmony. (p. 112)

Chapter 5: "Why Education Should Be Public and the Same for All"

Chapter Five is, I believe, the easiest chapter to read for laypersons, because it addresses contemporary topics such as pluralism in a discussion style, and less in an analytic style which follows textually the words of Aristotle. It does, however, also present some of the most problematic concepts of Aristotelian thought, related to the desire to have everyone be virtually the same in their views, ideas, and virtues.

Curren uses another new argument here, the argument from constitutional unity (CU), which he then combines with his earlier stated argument from a common end (CE). These arguments, together, claim that to reach and maintain a political, constitutional unity, there must be a common end that all should aim to reach. Aristotle wants to use "vehicles of civic unification" (p. 131), such as brotherhoods, common rites, and education, to create bonds of friendship in order to reach this common end. Curren claims that Aristotle would especially emphasize a common education as a force for promoting that common end and toward unity, since education can "bring citizens together in settings which nurture friendly contact, common desires and character traits, and the formation of networks of substantial friendships spanning the city's disparate social and economic sectors. (p. 131)

This brings to mind the efforts at desegregation, such as busing and intergroup education, that began in the 1950s-1960s as a way to bring students from different races together. However, while some of the goals for these efforts were to help students initiate understanding and friendships based on differences, rather than trying to erase differences, Aristotle has an entirely different end in mind. As Curren interprets Aristotle, the goal of educating children together is to create a unified community by making people as alike as possible: "A ‘common upbringing,' which makes people more alike, ‘contributes greatly to friendship' (NE VIII.12 1161b34-35)" (p. 137). This language is disturbingly reminiscent of the language used at the turn of the beginning of the 20th century in America, both in debates about immigration restriction and by educators. While Aristotle writes that "every contrivance should be adopted which will mingle the citizens with one another and get rid of old connections (NE VI.4 1319b23-27)" (p. 139), a New York superintendent of schools in 1918 wrote that schools should teach children "an appreciation of the institutions of this country [and] absolute forgetfulness of all obligations or connections with other countries because of descent or birth" (Tyack, 1993, p. 13). The impact of these attitudes included the deculturalization—loss of culture—and restriction of immigration all who were not Western European.

Curren does take some time to criticize this argument from a common end (CE). He addresses the very real concern in contemporary society that there may be multiple goals within a city, that there can be a "pluralism of the good" (p. 140). Curren writes that this would result in a less unified society than Aristotle envisioned, and that citizens would share fewer "traits" and goals in common. But Curren sticks with the Aristotelian line in this case, as he calls the CE a way to "serve as a sufficient counterweight to the centrifugal forces exerted by the presence of competing conceptions of the good. (p. 140)

Next Curren moves to what he calls the argument from inseparability (I), which is the level to which people belong to the state vs. how much they can claim to belong to themselves. Curren changes the question to how much "the good of individuals as dependent upon the good of the whole polis" (p. 145). Curren labels this the argument from the unity of care. He describes that "the care of each necessarily involves and must be guided by the care of the whole because the care of each requires law, and law is an essentially common institution which aims not at the good of any one individual, but at the common good" (p. 149). Law and education should be used together to reach the common good.

It is at this point that Curren further elaborates on his argument from the foundations of corrective justice (FCJ). He divides this into the consent version and the complicity version of FCJ. He has already begun laying the groundwork for the idea of consent, with his principle of fidelity to reason, which, again, states that persuasion must come before force in order to gain consent for the principles of justice. The complicity version of FCJ, on the other hand, deals not with consent but with who is allowed to punish and when. The complicity version is described as follows: "it is the one in a position to educate and punish – the state, or polis in its legislative capacities – that is to blame, and not the wrongdoer, if the former did not provide suitable education" (p. 151). Curren describes Aristotle's contribution to this developing idea as that while individual human beings must give individual effort to their own moral and intellectual development, in reality it is the polis as a whole that must also contribute the proper training and habituation toward moral development.

Chapter 6: "Education and the Foundations of Justice"

After laying the groundwork for the argument from corrective justice (FCJ) in Chapter 5, Curren moves in Chapter 6 to further elaborate the argument, as well as to respond to possible objects to this argument. The first main line in this chapter is a response to the criticisms from the private law/criminal law fields. Curren claims that writers from these fields misinterpret Aristotle as conceiving of corrective justice as distinct from and independent of distributive justice. As Curren writes, it is important in criticizing these contemporary writings to note that "for Aristotle all law is an instrument of political rule, and none of it private in the modern sense" (p. 159).

To deal with the second argument against his FCJ, Curren engages in a discussion of Aristotle's account of moral responsibility. Curren reminds us that any criticisms that require a modern notion of free will are inaccurate readings of Aristotle. For as Curren writes, for Aristotle, much of the moral education of persons "must be produced by" moral habituation toward rationally determining what actions to take toward the good of the city (p. 161).

Curren tries to take a conciliatory approach based on the concepts of diagnostic and justificatory judgments. In Curren's analysis, we should see Aristotle's account of responsibility first as diagnostic—a moral assessment of an action—and second as justificatory—an injunction to impose sanctions for improper actions.

Curren again engages in a discussion of multicultural issues in today's society, when he returns to the complicity version of FCJ. He describes that Aristotle's main concern is over differing abilities to make informed and rational consent due to "differential investments in moral socialization" (p. 178). He proclaims that the aggressiveness fostered in our school systems of today is that this model "fails to cultivate a responsiveness to reason" (italics in original) (p. 181), which is needed in FCJ. This is a good conclusion to the argument is one is reading the argument from the perspective of the principle of fidelity to reason. Another response, from the focus on care, would be that this model of aggressiveness does not provide a model of caring that students would need in order to begin to care for others in their shared polis.

Curren's conclusion to this chapter is this: "the acquisition of a rational will, of self-control, and the capacity to comply with law, is an attainment which requires timely and very substantial social investments which are far from universally forthcoming" (p. 181).

Chapter 7: "Justice and the Substance of Common Care"

The final chapter of this book is the chapter that most directly addresses education, and it is crucial for drawing conclusions to the arguments set forth by Curren throughout the book. It also presents more of Curren's own words, including two graphs that help to further explain his ideas. Some of the key points in this chapter include the nature of educational equity and democracy, education toward full employment, the role of phronesis in education, and finally, a conclusion to the discussion of Aristotle on the necessity of public education.

Curren begins this final analysis of educational equality by laying out three difficulties with defining educational equality. First, Curren writes, there are different values and benefits within the world. In other words, not everybody places value on the same things, and not everybody benefits from the same things. Second, Curren engages in an analysis of the concepts of "equal educational opportunity" vs "equal education." The difference here is in how the aims of education are conceived. Equal education applies when there is an immediate instructional task, while equal educational opportunity speaks to broader goals. Curren lists some of the possible goals as "equalization in prospects in life or prospects of middle-class status, or more modestly the equalization of opportunity to get an education that will improve those prospects" (p. 185). And a third difficulty in defining educational equality is the distribution of resources. Curren leads this discussion into the domain of how much the state should have the power or, further, be required to distribute resources equally across all educational enterprises.

In examining these conceptions of educational equality, Curren undertakes an extended analysis of Amy Gutmann's concept of ‘democratic threshold' of equal educational opportunity, in which she proposes a threshold of equality rather than an absolute equality. Probably the greatest concern that Curren expresses over Gutmann's ideas is that the way she has conceived of educational equality drives education toward being a competitive arena. Curren's response, very clearly drawn from his reconstruction of Aristotle thus far, is that education should be aimed at a common good, and should be considered as a practice that aims for the common good, not as a way to advance one group over another.

Curren argues that his argument from the foundations of corrective justice (FCJ), combined with the argument from a common end (CE), will result in a rich compulsory curriculum. Curren's version of a rich curriculum is "one which includes moral and civic education, preparation for work, and an initiation into the life of the mind focused on the structures of reason and evidence" (p. 183). In this new focus on education for work, Curren writes from Aristotle's concept of moderation of wealth when he writes that rule in society is undermined by inequities in economic status. In practical terms, Curren interprets Aristotle as having concern over the ability and desire to work together to achieve a common end when there are gross economic inequities.

Now this argument definitely shows a foundation in the words of Aristotle provided by Curren throughout the book. And I appreciate the discussion of how economic viability impacts a person's ability to participate in life. However, I would challenge the argument. This focus on education for employment, in reality, does not guarantee economic equality, and possibly worse on Curren's account, neither does it guarantee "the possibility of mutual respect." For even if there were universal availability of work, it is not only the unemployed who struggle to gain the mutual respect and trust of others, but also those who work in jobs that may not be universally respected by others, ranging from minimum wage work to work in certain of the professions.

And now, in the middle of this final chapter, Curren addresses more fully the concept of phronesis, which Aristotle states absolutely must underlie virtue. As Curren interprets Aristotle, "no one has true moral virtue without having the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom" (p. 202). Since practical wisdom involves conceptions of the good as well as deliberations about what actions to take to reach that good, I believe that all of Curren's arguments regarding virtue, common end, and understanding of the law, could be taken to be based entirely on the possession of phronesis. For as Curren concludes, phronesis is "the consummation of virtue" (p. 204).

And finally, at the conclusion of the book, Curren provides an argument for common schooling based on identifying common goods that can be reached by educating all children together. A common schooling would promote trust and friendship, would enable all people to participate in decision-making for the whole, and that the result would be "a more socially unified and politically stable society" (p. 215). Curren concludes this part of this discussion by writing that

Aristotle's concerns about social division, distrust, inequality, and the barriers these pose to a stable and just political system are significant enough to warrant establishing and maintaining a public system of schools which at least provides substantial incentives for children from all parts of our cities to spend part of their time learning and growing up together in settings which accord and communicate equality of status. (p. 216)

This argument answers, also, the question of whether privatization of education would be valued in an Aristotelian view. In Curren's analysis, with Aristotle's concern that children be educated together in order to learn common values and ideas, Curren believes that Aristotle would not have been in favor of privatization schemes like vouchers.

This last argument, in my opinion, is the most valuable in the book for understanding Aristotle's arguments within contemporary terms. It helps explain, in terms we use everyday, why Aristotle would say that public schools are necessary.


Freeland, Cynthia (ed.) (1998). Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Natali, Carlo (2001). The Wisdom of Aristotle. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Robertson, Emily (May, 2002). "On the Necessity of Public Education: Curren's Argument from the Foundations of Corrective Justice." Paper presented at the California Association of Philosophers of Education conference.

Tessitore, Aristide (1996). Reading Aristotle's "Ethics": Virtue, Rhetoric, and Political Philosophy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

About the Reviewer

Jana Noel is an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at California State University, Sacramento, after being Assistant and Associate Professor of Multicultural Education and Philosophy of Education for nine years at Montana State University. Her research interests are in multicultural teacher education, Aristotelian scholarship, and the history of Native American education.

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