Seeking Civic Virtue: Two Views of the Philosophy and History of Federalism in U.S. Education.

Author:Hornbeck, Dustin


The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This leaves the power to create schools and a system for education in the hands of individual states, rather than the central federal government. The historical and philosophical term used to describe a government that shares power between a central and regional governments is called federalism. Today, all fifty states provide public schooling to their young people. This leaves fifty approaches to education within the borders of one nation. Some might argue that this system should be streamlined by the federal government to ensure equality for every student in every state of the same nation. Conversely, many believe that the central government should stay out of education. President Ronald Reagan campaigned for the abolition of the Department of Education during his run for president (Clabaugh, 2004). In fact, a bill was recently introduced in the House of Representatives that would abolish the Department of Education effective December 31, 2018 (Kamenetz, 2017). Despite the desire by some to abolish the federal Department of Education, there are many tasks and responsibilities for which this federal agency is responsible. Some of these tasks include funding for special education, ensuring civil rights for students, providing funding to those with low income, technology grants, food guidelines, school lunch programs, and suggested academic standards for states to implement. The controversy centering around the role of the federal government in education poses a philosophical question that this paper seeks to answer: Is it just to leave the function of education to individual states? Using a classical philosophical approach drawing on the ideas from Aristotle's (2009) Nicomachean Ethics (Ethics), I will attempt to investigate this question further. I use Aristotle because his ideas indirectly influenced the American founding. It is possible to see elements of Aristotle throughout the Federalist Papers, many of which were written by James Madison--the architect of the Constitution. I will then counter this approach with the ideas of philosopher Amy Gutmann, using her democratic approach to education in society. While Aristotle and republicanism are an essential part of the American legal system, democracy is also a basic building block to the body politic, and both offer ways to tackle this philosophical question about control of education. After exploring this philosophical question, I will then investigate the history of federalism in education by looking at historical trends of federal involvement in education, and what the traditional role of states has been since the founding of the United States.

Classical Approach

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle (2009) contends that every person is in search of what is called the good life, also translated as happiness. In Greek, this is called eudaimonia. The good life, called telos in Greek, is an end to what people seek in life. Telos is not to be confused with desire or wants but is a mean or average of a collection of virtues that one can possess. When individuals find a perfect balance in their lives they reach this 'mean.' To understand the importance of attaining virtue, it is first necessary to understand the way in which individuals learn to be virtuous. To Aristotle, this takes place within a community. The community is the place where people engage in friendship, which to Aristotle is a form of justice. Justice is synonymous to living a virtuous life. As members of a community, or polis, it is incumbent upon people to be virtuous and make their community a place where virtue can thrive. According to Aristotle (1948), the polis was formed around families, who then create villages, and villages together form a polis. This is important because he believed that community was needed in order to have a good life. It is from this community that members derive their virtue.

What is virtue? Aristotle uses the term arete to describe virtue, which Taylor (2006) translates as excellence. This type of virtue is two-fold for Aristotle, one type is excellence of intellect and the other is excellence of character (Taylor, 2006). In Book Two, Chapter One of Ethics, Aristotle (2009) wrote that virtue of intellect is learned from teaching, and that virtue of character is learned from habit. These virtues are not natural to people and must be learned; however, it is not possible to learn them just from desire to do so. Hence, one must live in a community, and learn these virtues over time. Aristotle explains this by writing:

We acquire the virtues by having previously exercised them, as also in the case of the skills. For what one has to learn to do we learn by doing, e.g. people become builders by building, and lyre-players by playing the lyre; and so too we become just by performing just acts and temperate by temperate acts and courageous by courageous acts. (Warne, 2006, p. 2)

Virtues, however, are not learned like playing the lyre; rather they are inculcated over time by exposure within a community, and by habitual practice.

Citizenship is at the heart of much of Aristotle's work, and the role of the citizen in Politics is someone who literally rules and helps make laws, which is a role reserved for a certain class of person. Yet, in the United States, all citizens rule by virtue of voting. While these ideas are quite different, it is important to understand that the framers of American Constitutionalism intended for sovereignty to be placed with the people; which were white male landowners, but has evolved over time to make all people citizens. One common place to find the conception of democracy in the United States is in Federalist Ten, in which James Madison explains that a republic is where "the scheme of representation takes place" (Madison, 1985, p.1). This type of representation stands in stark contrast to direct or pure democracy, which the founders tried to avoid and is evident in institutions like the Electoral College, the United States Senate, and the small number of congressional representatives which dilute the power of the people and are largely undemocratic (Wolin, 1960). Wolin (1960) argued that Madison was influenced by the idea that ambition and interest of those that wish to serve as representatives could influence them to be more virtuous, which is an idea espoused by Machiavelli. Despite the disparate republican form of government found in the United States, it does carry elements of democracy, albeit representative. Aristotle wrote in the Politics: "the excellence of being a good citizen must belong to all citizens indifferently, because that is a condition necessary for the state being the best state" (Barker, 1948, p. 117). This recognition that virtue or excellence is necessary for each citizen and person is of great importance, as it recognizes that all people are diverse and yet they all must still adhere to the doctrine of the mean that is proposed in search of a virtuous life. Aristotle's doctrine of the mean is balance between extreme emotions, actions, and feelings of the human condition. It is similar to the ego within Freud's psychoanalysis between the id and superego. When citizens of a polis come together and live virtuously, while ruling justly, the good life is attainable. Citizens acting virtuously together will make the good life achievable for all.

Within the context of education, the United States is made up of a collection of villages, townships, counties, and other local government entities. Local school boards have traditionally controlled the schooling/education systems for localities, and each school board has power and control to make independent decisions as to what they feel is best for the children in their community. Individual communities have different needs, and every citizen of each community can vote for their school board members which represent the polis of each village. Schooling and education from the perspective of virtue ethics posited by Aristotle would best be served by the local community. It is within the local community that people learn from one another and witness virtue with the hope of obtaining this as their telos toward the goal of eudaimonia. Situated within a community, individuals find friendship, and within relationships between friends, virtue is found. Aristotle wrote,

Between friends, there is no need for justice, but people who are just, still need the quality of friendship; and indeed friendliness is considered to be justice in the fullest sense. It is not only a necessary thing but a splendid one. (Aristotle, 2009, p. 35)

To Aristotle, justice and friendship are both essential parts of living the good life and are intertwined. Standards for education that were created and suggested by the federal...

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