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

By Hornbeck, Dustin | Journal of Thought, Fall-Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

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


Hornbeck, Dustin, Journal of Thought


Introduction

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. …

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