Some Brief Remarks on a Thomistic Philosophy of Education

Last Updated August 10, 1999 - a work in progress!

These notes are not a complete treatment, but written in response to a reader of these pages, who wanted to know what Thomas had to say about education. I will often refer to passages from The Pocket Aquinas compiled by Vernon J. Bourke (which I will paraphrase for copyright reasons), since this is easily available to university students and others. This is refered to as "Bourke" throughout this article.

The Permanence of Marriage and the Parents as Educators

Thomas sees the parents as the primary educators.


In the Summa Contra Gentiles book III, q. 122, (p. 219 ff. in Bourke) Thomas considers education or upbringing while discussing sexual or marital ethics. The chapter, in its full latin title, is Qua ratione fornicatio simplex secundum legem divinam sit peccatum, et quod matrimonium sit naturale -- The reason why simple fornication is a sin according to divine law, and why marriage is natural.

The argument that Thomas is dealing with is very simple. People will say that if a woman is not married and no longer under the power of her parents, and if the man and woman agree, then no harm is done by engaging in sex. They do no harm to each other.

Thomas replies that God has concern for each thing. He desires that which is good for each thing. The good of each thing is that it achieves its purpose, and what is evil for each thing is that it would be diverted from its due purpose. Our reproductive material does not have as its purpose our own preservation, but it's purpose is the preservation of the species. It is not merely something expelled from the body, like sweat or urine. For the semen to achieve its biological purpose, it must be emitted in such a way as to serve the purpose of generation, and this purpose is served by sexual intercourse. The achievement of purpose does not stop there, but the generation of a new human being also requires that the new human should be nurtured (nutritio), because the child otherwise would not survive. Therefore, the emission of semen should be ordered in such a way that the proper generation and education of the offspring may result - Sic igiture ordinata debet esse seminis emission ut sequi possit et generatio conveniens et geniti educatio.

Before we continue, we may already observe that in Thomas is using "nurture" or "upbringing" (nutritio) and "education" (education) as synonyms. The juxtaposition of these terms shows that when Thomas speaks of education, he is not thinking of this merely as schooling by professionals or specialists who operate in their own sphere apart from the family.

Thomas now turns his eye to nature, to how other animals raise their young. There are animals where the male does not remain with the female after coitus. Among those animals the female has sufficient resources of her own to raise the young. In the case of other animals the male remains long enough to raise the young, as in the case of certain birds, and mammals in general. Now, in the human species, the female by herself is least able to provide for the education of the young, since the needs of human life require many things that cannot be provided by one parent alone. When we consider what is the natural way, it does not matter that there are some individuals with sufficient resources to be successful single parents. Such individuals are the exception, but what is naturally right is what is suited to the species as a whole.

Furthermore, the needs of human offspring go beyond food and shelter. They also require a formation of mind or soul -- proles non indiget solum nutritione quantum ad corpus, ut in aliis animalibus, sed etiam instructione quantum ad animam. Other animals are naturally endowed with the knowledge of what they need to do to provide for themselves, but man lives by reason. By using his reason, by trial and error over a long period of time, an individual human being can acquire the experience that becomes skill in living. Thomas uses calls a life-skill a prudence - a prudentia. Prudence is a form of knowledge that is applied to the contingent and changing circumstances of life, a knowledge directed to action. Prudence cannot be codified. Proverbs express insights prudence (such sayings as "a stitch in time saves nine"), but it takes experience, or the vicarious experience of a guide such as a parent, to impart prudence.

A long time is required for this instruction or formation of the soul. This is not only because there is much information to be imparted, but also because children require moral discipline: propter impetus passionum quibus corrumpitur aestimatio prudentiae, indigent non solum instructione, sed etiam repressione -- because of the movement of the passions by which the judgement of prudence is spoiled, children need not only instruction, but also control. The woman alone cannot provide such control, and this is where the role of the husband is important. Thomas says that the man has a faculty of reason more perfectly suited to instruct (ratio perfectior ad instruendum), which may seem sexist according to modern thinking, but he also says that he has a stronger ability to provide discipline (virtus potentior ad castigandum). This second characteristic is undeniable. Single mothers have great difficulties in this area, and their children are often out of control.

The conclusion is that the raising of children requires both parents, and this is a major reason, or the major reason, why marriage should be a permanent society. What Thomas does not mention, but may be inferred from his argument, is that the imparting of instruction does not cease as soon as the offspring become independent. Grandparents continue to play a role in instruction, both with regard to their adult children and their grandchildren. This is easily ignored today, because we think of technical and scientific knowledge as primary, and the elderly are obsolete along with their science and know-how. However, prudential knowledge is never obsolete.

Thomas uses teleological explanations based on simple observations of the animal kingdom. We may add another observation. Jared Diamond, in an article in Discover (Why Women Change, July 1996), wonders about the purpose of some singular features of human female fertility. Human females are unique in that they outlive their own fertility, surviving well past menopause. Diamond seeks an evolutionary explanation, namely: how does an infertile aged female help the survival of the species? Evolutionary explanations are largely teleological explanations, at least in their conclusions, and his conclusion is that "as a woman ages, she can do more to increase the number of people bearing her genes by devoting herself to her existing children and grandchildren than by producing yet another child." The permanence of the family starts with the bond of man and wife, but grows into the bonds of the extended family, which is a broader forum for nurture and education.

The Family and the State

Thomas recognizes both the family and the state as natural societies. The state makes up for what the family cannot provide. However, the state should not take over the functions that the family can perform well enough by itself.

Thomas takes from the writings of Aristotle (especially the opening remarks of Aristotle's Politics) the distinction between natural and conventional (artificial) societies. A natural society is one that must come into being because of the necessities of nature. A conventional society also arises out of real needs and desires, but it may or may not exist. There are two natural societies. First there is the society of the family, starting with the society of man and wife, and expanding to include children. Next there is political society, the state. Between the two there are many intermediate stages, as Aristotle shows how the state develops from families. We might find clans, tribes, and federations of tribes in the process.

Conventional societies include companies, banks, clubs, associations, and schools. While we cannot conceive of a viable society where there is no trade, we could conceive of one where trade was done without banks as we know them. Every developed society would have to provide specialized education, but the form of educational institutions can vary.

Man by nature depends on society.(see Thomas' Exposition of Aristotle's Ethics, I, lect. 1, n. 4, Bourke p. 232). Man is a social or political animal. As a solitary individual he cannot provide for himself. First, every man depends upon his parents for his coming into being, his nurturing and upbringing. Family members also provide mutual help in the necessities of life, as when one brother helps another.

While the family members provide each other with the necessities of life, a greater society is needed if men are not merely to live, but to live well. This larger community is the political community, or state. The community can provide many material things that a family alone could not provide, but also provides moral goods. For example, when juvenile delinquents no longer follow their parents' advice and are out of control, they may be controlled by the power of the state.

Although Thomas sees advantages in having one individual rule the state, he still maintains the importance of individual liberty. One man is not ordered by his nature to another man as a means to an end. And so the subjects should not be ordered to the good of the ruler, but rather the ruler should be the servant of his subjects, acting for their good.(cf. On the Sentences II, 44, 1, 3 ad 1, Bourke p. 234). A despotic regime is one where the ruler treats his subjects as slaves, who have no power to make their own decisions, whereas a political regime is one where men live under the rule of their leader, but still have some power of their own.(Summa Theologica I q. 81 a. 3, Bourke p. 234).

The best relation of state to individual lies in the middle, between radical individualism (social atomism) and totalitarianism (where the unity of the state overrides all individual action). The state is a society of societies, including families and other societies without absorbing them. The proper relation of the state to its constituent bodies is described as the principle of subsidiarity:

"that no higher organization should take over work that a lower organization should do satisfactorily. The higher does not exist to absorb or extinguish the lower but to supplement and extend it. Otherwise the rights given by nature to the individual and to the famkily, and man's freedom to organize for lesser pursuits within the state, are rendered meaningless. On the other hand, the state should provide a favorable environment in which individuals, families and voluntary associations can fulfill their functions when they fail to function as they ought or cannot harmonize their activies for the common good. (p. 394, Right and Reason Austin Fagothey, S.J., 2nd edition, 1959).

Children and Parental Rights

The rights of parents in the education of their children is addressed in the Summa Theologica II-II, q. 10, a. 12 (Bourke 252). The question he addresses is whether the children of Jews and others who do not believe in the Catholic Faith should be baptized against the will of their parents. Quite simply, the answer is no. Thomas notes that this has been a point of friction between rulers who were zealous Christians, and the bishops of the Catholic Church. For example Pope Sylvester opposed Constantine who wanted such forced baptisms, as bishop Ambrose opposed the Emperor Theodosius in the same way.

One of the reasons against such forced baptism is that such compulsion is opposed to natural justice. A child naturally belongs to his parents. First of all, the child shares its mother's body, while he is contained in his mother's womb. After he is born, but before he has the use of reason, the child is under his parents care as if in a spiritual womb. As long as the child does not have the use of reason, he is no different than an irrational animal, and so he must be under the care of his parents. After he begins to have the use of free will, he begins to become his own and can provide for himself with respect to matters of divine and natural law. At that point, the free adult may be drawn to the faith by persuasion, but not compelled.

We must consider also that baptism is a sacrament that is administered in a very short time. However, what Thomas says about baptism concerns not only the baptism itself, but all that it entails. Baptism entails a relgious upbringing, especially catechetical learning. The arguments in this case can easily be applied to any cases of compulsory education. The parents have primary rights in deciding what is best for their children.

The Teacher works with the Natural Learning Process

Question 11 in the Disputed Questions on Truth (De Veritate) concerns the Teacher. The first article is the question of whether a man may teach and may be called a teacher, or whether God alone is the teacher - (Utrum homo possite docere et dici magister, vel solus Deus.

Thomas defends the view that one man may truly teach another. The objections he deals with stem from a literal interpretation of certain biblical passaged, such as where our Lord says to his disciples "Let no man call you rabbi (teacher)".

Another objection is "semiotic", that one man cannot show others his knowledge except through signs, but to know a sign is not the same as knowing the thing that is signified by the sign.

Thomas brings forth biblical passages where the apostlesf call themselves teachers. While God is the source of all truth, and so the ultimate teacher, this does not prevent him from using other creatures as instruments by which He teaches men. When we say that God is the cause of all things, this does not mean that there are no intermediate causes. Rather, the order of the universe (which order is caused by God) is woven of the order and interconnection of various causes. The first cause (God) not only causes things to exist, but also causes them to be causes in their own right.

Some say that the teacher merely removes the obstacles so that the student can rediscover the knowledge that is already within him. Thomas agrees that knowledge exists in potency in the student, but this does not mean that the student has the knowledge, but that he can acquire it if something acts upon him (to move him from potency to act). Habits (including moral virtues and technical skills) may exist in the learner as a certain inclination, but something is required to bring a vague inclination to perfection. A boy may have an aptitude to be a good surgeon, but only training makes the skill actual.

Knowledge is built upon previous knowledge, and Thomas recognizes that there are within our minds from the beginning certain "seeds of knowledge" (scientiarum semina) - these are the first conceptions of the mind (primae conceptiones intellectus). These are known right away by the light of the active mind whn it is first presented with mental images abstracted from the senses. These first conceptions may be complex axioms (dignitates), by which he means general truths that are mentall expressed in a statement containing subject and predicate (saying "this" about "that"), or non-complex notions, such as the meaning of being.

These general truths come to the mind from its first encounter with experience. They are not innate, because there is no knowledge whatever before experience wakes the mind. These general truths are the starting point or seeds from which all other knowledge comes. Someone acquires knowledge when the mind starts from this general or universal knowledge and arrives at some particular thing or fact. Before knowing the particular thing, the mind knew it in potency (or had the unrealized ability to know it), but then it knows the thing in act (it actually knows it).

There are two ways something can exist in potency in another thing. First, the thing may exist by an active complete potency. Here there is an inner principle by which the thing can change itself, for example, as when a sick person heals himself by his own inner natural power.

Another kind of potency is merely passive, when a thing cannot change to a new state at all unless something acts upon it from outside, as a piece of wood cannot ignite itself, but it must be ignited by fire.

Knowledge pre-exists in the knower in an active complete potency, because at least in some cases a man can acquire new knowledge by himself. The teacher is compared to the medical doctor. The doctor does not actually heal, but he helps nature in its own process of healing. The doctor is the servant of nature in the healing process.

When a man learns something by his own unaided natural power, this is discovery (inventio), but when he is helped by a teacher (as a patient is helped by a physician), this is schooling (disciplina).

Learning, then, can come about either by nature or by human skill (arte). When learning is aided by the human skill of the teacher, this skill will work the same way that nature does. If a doctor sees that nature heals a certain condition when there is heat, he follows nature in using heat. Likewise, the teacher tries to lead a person along the path by which he would most effectively learn by himself.

The natural process of learning occurs when the mind applies common priniples that are known by themselves (per se nota - self-evident) to the particular circumstances (ad determinatas materias, and then the mind proceeds to particular conclusions, and these in turn serve as starting points by the same process to other conclusions.

The teacher guides the learner along the steps of this movement of reason. The teacher indeed does use signs, and these signs serve the learner as tools by which he comes to know new things.

If someone does not start teaching from self-evident principles, or at least from things that the student already knows by his own reason, but simply sets forth some new piece of information, he is not causing knowledge, since he has not proved anything and has not produced certainty in the student, but he is causing either opinion or faith in the mind of his listener. Even in this cause, the listener will either reject what is presented because it is contrary to what he already knows with certainty in the light of first principles and reasoned experience, or he will accept it as possible or probable.

Since all learning requires the light of reason, and since we are endowed with this light by God, so it is God alone who teaches us from within, and He is the principal teacher. Nevertheless, the human teacher teaches just as surely as the medical doctor heals, by helping nature.