Pleasures and Pains: the right education

Were a philosopher to suddenly jump out from behind a bush and ask you, “What is education?” my guess is that you, like me, would answer something like “imparting knowledge.” Now the philosopher (who, incidentally, is likely to look like a hobo) might quibble with you about that definition, but I don’t think that it is so bad. We all know what it feels like to learn. It is a feeling of growth, of something “being there” in your mind that was not there before. The good teacher can somehow bring that about; he seems to be able to pour knowledge into you, much as you would pour wine into a glass.

Plato quite famously disagrees with this common understanding of education. In the famous Allegory of the Cave in the Republic, Plato instead suggests that the power of learning is already present in every human being’s soul, so there is no “pouring in” of knowledge required. Rather, the true nature of education is “turning the soul around,” getting the child or the student to pay attention to the things that are more substantial and real, as opposed to the unimportant and the ephemeral. Once this turning around is accomplished, the human being will educate himself.

I like that understanding of education as well, for it also fits with part of our common experience. We’ve all known a child who can relate all kinds of amazing details about dinosaurs, or an X-box game, or a sports star. The child did not need to be educated in regard to such matters–he educated himself.

However, even Plato’s marvelous Allegory of the Cave can leave one with some questions. How, exactly, does the soul of the pupil get “turned around?” In the Allegory, this turning of the soul to the real things is presented as a painful process, as something one must be compelled to do. So who, or what, does the turning?

Again, I think we would have a pretty good initial answer: “the teacher.” One thinks immediately of the movie Dead Poets Society, and the real-life heroic teachers one has known (and, of course, heroic parents, the first teachers of their children). But that still hasn’t fully answered the question: how do teachers do this? What “means” or tools do they use to turn the souls of their charges around?

Aristotle proposes an excellent answer in his Nicomachean Ethics: pleasures and pains. Here is how he puts it:

“For moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as to both delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; this is the right education.” (NE II.3, trans. David Ross)

In other words, the truly effective parent or teacher does not merely seek to impart knowledge. He does not merely seek to make his charges do the right right things and avoid the wrong ones. Rather, he seeks to train his charges to habitually take pleasure in the right sort of things, and to experience pain and displeasure in regard to bad things. For if a student or child experiences pleasure, he will pain attention, and seek out the activity in the future. He will educated himself. If he is pained, he will begin to avoid the activity. He will avoid deforming his mind with the wrong things.

The point of this is not to make children or students “manageable” in the here and now. Rather, the goal is that such an education will make them more free in the long run. The receiver of such an education, when he grows into maturity, will not have to struggle to do the right things: to act courageously, to study, to eat his broccoli. He will have learned to enjoy such things since his youth–and so he will want to do them. And wanting to do them and enjoying them will make him excellent at them. He will be able to act freely; he will do what he wants.

But enough philosophy already–what does this mean practically? Here are, to my mind, three practical implications the parent or educator could draw from Aristotle’s theory:

1) Try to make good activities and things enjoyable.

If you are going to teach a class, why not tell jokes? Why not have a song of the day? Why not, in other words, try to enjoy yourself, and make it enjoyable for your students? I know it sounds paradoxical, but this can be done without a total loss of seriousness in the class.

Or, to take this in a spiritual direction, if you are a Catholic parent taking his family to confession, why not get some frozen yogurt afterwards? Or if you are going to church, why not stop by and light a few candles on the way out? Kids love playing with fire. Make it fun, people.

2) Eliminate, as far as possible, competing pleasures that would drown out the more subtle pleasures in good things.

This is a controversial point, but I think it is in regard to this point that we most commonly fail as parents and teachers. Just as “hunger is the best spice,” so also a certain hunger for pleasures is necessary to experience some of the higher-order pleasures, such as the pleasures of learning.

So, in class, do not allow your students to use cell phones. College teachers sometimes argue with me about this. It is not their job, they say, to police behavior. While that is a fair point, it is nevertheless a fact that the student will not experience the pleasure that comes from being able to understand a good philosophical argument if he is already entertaining himself on Twitter or playing Infinity Blade. So you do, in some degree, fail in your role as an educator if you allow other things to distract from the pleasures of your subject.


No Kindle, no problem.

As a parent, if you want your children to begin reading for fun, it’s simple: get rid of all other possible pleasures. That means cut off TV, handheld devices, and the internet. A kid always goes for the easiest pleasure, and a book will never be “easier” than playing Minecraft.

3) Try to make bad activities painful and hard. 

This is just common sense, I know. This is part of why we punish children when they misbehave, in order to import some “pain” into an activity that we wish children to avoid.

Strangely, though, I think teachers often fail in regard to this. For example, as a teacher, don’t bother trying to directly “eliminate” plagiarism. Rather, go at it indirectly by assigning paper topics that are so focused and unusual that competing the paper by plagiarizing would require more work and be likely to result in a lower grade. Tests are another example. You don’t want students to miss tests? Then make all make-up tests MUCH harder than the regular exams.

Responsible parents are usually already pretty good at making sure bad choices feel painful. I would, then, only offer a reminder. The greatest deterrent is you. Your presence does more to make bad activities hard, difficult, and displeasing for your children than any particular course of action I might recommend. And the biggest threat to your presence isn’t your work–it is divorce. Work to stay in love so that you can stay married, and that will enable you to be around for your kids.

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10 Responses to Pleasures and Pains: the right education

  1. Maura says:

    Thanks for this. I’m reblogging you!

  2. Maura says:

    Reblogged this on Mysteries and Manners and commented:
    Excellent post on philosophical approaches to education over at Retrievals. Enjoy!

  3. Greg Ward says:

    Great post and insights full of wisdom. I am reminded of Romans:
    not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.

  4. I believe in the domestication of children, if you’ll allow me to call it that. I do, however, stay away from terms like, “right” and “wrong” and try to say, instead, “good choice/bad choice.” I’m not trying to be politically correct—I don’t particularly care about how the general public would perceive me regarding that. I simply want my daughter to be able to comfortably interact with others on their terms. If, later in life, she decides to abandon her upbringing and fashion her own moral compass, I will applaud that. I did it myself (and continue to), after all.

    If you’d like to read more about my moral imperative (or lack of one, depending on who you ask), perhaps you might check out my post, I Believe in Pleasure and Pain.

    I enjoyed the read, Thanks for sharing!


  5. Pingback: Pleasures and Pains: the right education « Huynhing Attitude

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