“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” This popularly cited quote from Aristotle isn’t actually by the Greek philosopher at all. Despite its false attribution, the statement does encapsulate something essential to his thinking on education and was a perspective that had informed Western pedagogy for millennia: that education is about soul transformation.

Today, education is commonly considered to have an instrumental purpose; it is a means to an end. I don’t mean that disparagingly, but it is undeniable that in the contemporary West learning is seen as a tool to achieve particular goods: to be awarded high marks and honours, graduate university, maintain a job, gain facts, influence others, get rich! None of these outcomes are bad in themselves but they fail to grasp the genuine reason why education is so important, something Aristotle understood quite well. (Contrast this with the bizarre insistence from other quarters on “learning for learning’s sake”, as if the activity of acquiring knowledge is some kind of Faustian summum bonum.)

Only a few years ago, I attended a presentation by a well-regarded teacher professional development agency. The speaker argued very matter-of-factly (though not particularly convincingly) that students don’t need to be taught information anymore: young people now have the internet and Google from which to get all the facts they need, so teachers have become obsolete in this area. If he were right, if education was primarily about finding facts or learning skills, then it’s difficult to justify the current system. However, it is fundamentally more than that.

True education is the fashioning of character to conform to the true, good and beautiful. When facts and skills are learned, they don’t simply surge through the mind like passing rapids but instead flood it as if irrigating a parched field. Thus, learning transforms the soul – the ignorant, wildly passionate and ugly soul – into something that reflects the divine by making truths intimately part of the self. When we learn something (really learn it, that is, when facts and skills become cognitive knowledge and practical knowledge respectively), this education makes us different (and hopefully, better) people than who we were before. For this reason, above all others, teachers are necessary, and classrooms are not simply environments for transferring data but for transforming souls.

Now, Aristotle showed a preference for the intellectual and contemplative telos of the rational soul, yet he did not neglect practical schooling or its connection with our political (social) and ethical lives. (Still, he would have been horrified by the limited scope of STEM.) And it is in both practical and ethical education that we can clearly see how learning changes a person. What makes a gardener but someone who can by habit (we would be tempted to say: “by nature”, but this would confuse the issue) sow and tend plants? What makes a merciful person but someone who habitually shows and inculcates mercy? It is not by accident that we know anything but by being what we know. As Aristotle wrote: “Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it… We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate ones, brave by doing brave ones” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II). This is the power and responsibility of education.

Education is capable of changing our souls in so many ways, good and bad, through imitation. Memory and recollection are necessary preconditions for imprinting on the soul (mind) sense experiences and then being able to recall them, which manifests one truly knowing them by reliving them. The arts, such as literature, rhetoric, music and poetry, instruct and move us to be morally better, sympathetic to and expressive of the human condition. Likewise, gymnastics not only changes our bodies but our souls by developing a spirit of sportsmanship and control of the passions and appetites. Mathematics and logic enhance deductive abilities and shape our minds to think cogently and clearly. Education is clearly a holistic venture, like pruning, fertilising and watering a seedling to mature into a healthy and strong tree.

This demonstrates the devastating failure of the factory metaphor (and system) of schooling and why parents are the primary and best educators of their children. They have a natural affinity for the young student, nurture them from their earliest days and can justifiably use pain (punishment) and pleasure (reward) to steer the sapling to grow in the right direction. Aristotle’s definition of education is the same as that of his teachers, that is, the “the creation of a sound mind in a sound body”. Therefore, to him – and, ideally, to all educators – the aim of education is an active life process towards human flourishing: the welfare of the individual to bring happiness in their lives.