Aristotle on the Student’s Job

“All men by nature desire to know” (Metaphysics, I.1). This famous opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is fundamental advice in considering what obligations we — all of us who seek to grow in knowledge — have as students. But what exactly do students desire to know? How am I, as the instructor, to teach Latin to a boy who’d rather hear an analysis of last night’s game or an explanation of how drones fly? Aristotle helps here again, providing the missing piece in the Ethics, “All teaching starts from what is already known” (Ethics, VI.3). So, the teacher builds a bridge between what the student wants to know and what he does not yet know. Further, we teachers should use the engine of the student’s natural inclinations and interests to walk with him across that bridge into the realm of the newer knowledge.

The Student’s Job

The most important skill every student must exercise is summed up in our English word, student. Student comes from the Latin studeo, which means “to strive zealously for; take pains; be devoted.” It doesn’t matter much to me where this zeal starts at the beginning of the year. I need only to find out what interests the boy, and then I can try to connect as much of what we’re doing back to that.  

Our students don’t get off the hook that easily, though. Even as their natural inclinations pull them in a hundred directions, we ask them everyday to channel their own zeal using their individual will. This willpower is weakest in September and can be difficult to rebuild at the beginning of every year. No one loves being bad at something, and our students every year have to start out with little to no knowledge of algebra, ancient history, or physics. Some develop discipline early and thus end up in a feedback loop of success early on, but most need a month or two to reestablish the zeal, focusing on one task at a time with full attention.

Many of the students argue with me that they’ll never need to remember this or that because their own parents don’t remember what they learned years ago. These students still lack that most important lesson. Just as it doesn’t matter whether or not they remember what they ate four Tuesdays ago, it does not matter that much of the content degrades in their memory over the weeks and months of the school year. In the cumulative subjects of math, Latin and science, the students continue to practice and use many earlier concepts. Even in non-cumulative subjects like history or English, what they learn and how they learned it are both lessons that stay with them longer than they realize. While we can provide the what for the boys contemplation and study, so much of the how is up to the boys, though we’re always here with input and suggestions.

To drive this point home early for my students, I make them copy into their notes the following quotation from Plutarch’s Moralia:

The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbors for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get to some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his own flame, his own intellect, but is happy to sit entranced by the lecture, and the words trigger only associative thinking and bring, as it were, only a flush to his cheeks and a glow to his limbs; but he has not dispelled or dispersed, in the warm light of philosophy, the internal dank gloom of his mind.

—On Listening to Lectures, 48C

The modern educational approach strives to create experts and technicians, but not men or citizens. We’re asking our students to improve as students because that is one important aspect of manhood. Middle School Head Andy Reed reminds us every year at the beginning of the faculty retreat that a man is often measured by his devotion. To what is your son currently devoted? To what do you want to see him devoted in his adult life? When his teachers devote themselves both to him and their subject-matter, men are not only teaching him about manliness, they’re exemplifying it every day. This devotion, studium, in the Latin, is what we’re trying to give our students. Teachers don’t hand down traditions or wisdom like a baton in a relay. They gaze at the past or contemplate a story with their students and each boy takes a bit of the tradition or wisdom with him. He must, however, actively assimilate it, not passively receive it.

The Ordering of Affections

Thus, the teacher’s job falls under the head of care of the soul. He must recognize that the student in front of him is a complete human, with passions, appetites, an intellect, and a will. Cultivating this zeal in all my students requires that I cultivate it first in myself. Paul VI reminded us that “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41). I must embody the zeal of the student so that my students may see and understand what it looks like.

Teaching consists of so much more than virtue training or information exchange, though many schools will treat it as one or the other. Rather, all of us who have children or work with children engage in the work of education for ourselves and those entrusted to us. Augustine summed up this education as the ordo amoris, the ordering of love. Love grows out of zeal. That which we zealously pursue is that which we love. Show me where a man spends his time and I’ll show you what that man loves. We are not teaching our students only to love history or English or math or science. Instead, we are teaching them to love the created cosmos and, by extension, the Creator — that Creator who ordered their passions, appetites, intellect, and will to see him in his creation and give him his due. C.S. Lewis sums up this small task of education by paraphrasing Aristotle’s definition of education:

…the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics;

Abolition of Man, Ch. 1

We practice, as teachers and students, this right ordering of the affections both in the intellectual and the moral life. Because of our Christian ethos, we realize that this is not the end but one means to open ourselves up to grace. This formation of the intellect and the will cannot be separated into “something schools do” and “something families do”; teacher, student, parent, sibling, friend: it is something we all do.

Tom Cox

About the author:

Tom Cox


Born and raised in Southern California, Tom Cox attended Hillsdale College in Michigan. After college, he went on an 18,000 mile road-trip exploring America and, while touring the country with his barbershop quartet, was offered this job at The Heights. Four years, two broken ankles, and one wedding later, he is enjoying life in Northern Virginia with his wife, Nicole, and three daughters. When he isn’t speaking, reading, or writing Greek and Latin, he enjoys reading, hiking, swing dancing, and spending time with family and friends.