I have recently been reading and re-reading the writings on education by the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. It has struck me that his early life as an active member of the communist left in Great Britain in the 1960’s had rarely been explored in connection to his later educational writings. This is in spite of MacIntyre’s insistence that certain Marxist themes have been constant in his work (2013). Particularly central to MacIntyre’s ‘revolutionary Aristotelian’ (Burns 2013) theory is the need for communities to: 1) co-operate in practices and 2) educate persons into a set of virtues so that 3) the worst excesses of latter day institutional capitalism may be moderated and challenged. MacIntyre describes the relationship between practices, institutions and virtues as follows:
Practices must not be confused with institutions. Chess, physics and medicine are practices; chess clubs, laboratories, universities and hospitals are institutions. Institutions are characteristically and necessarily concerned with…external goods. They are involved in acquiring money…they are structured in terms of power and status, and they distribute money, power and status as rewards…the ideals and creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution, in which the cooperative care for the common goods of the practice is always vulnerable to the competitiveness of the institution. In this context the essential function of the virtues is clear. Without them, without justice, courage and truthfulness, practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions (MacIntyre, 1984, p 194).
While MacIntyre’s explanation of the relationship of practices and virtues to institutions is open to different interpretations I am inclined toward the following reading. Practices are co-operative more than competitive human activities that have certain standards of excellence internal to them that make them what they are. Practices are passed on from groups to individuals, who in turn sustain and revise the cooperative practice of the group. In contrast virtues are qualities persons develop when they pursue a practice to the highest possible standard and with an eye on the goods internal to that practice rather than for external reward. MacInyre (1984) takes the example of a child learning to play chess. He remarks that if they only play chess to get the reward of candy at the end, they will not likely care about extending their own powers towards excellence in chess by learning the standards internal to the game of chess that make chess what it is. The child would have no reason not to cheat others out of the candy. If however the child does not merely play chess for external reward and praise and if they can come to learn the value of chess in and of itself then they begin to become a practitioner of chess who is committed to upholding the standards of excellence internal to the game.
MacIntyre believes that practices can, in theory, give a narrative order and unity to human life when institutions are structured according to the standards internal to practices (Knight, 2013). However, he also holds that in the post-Enlightenment world, the goods internal to practices all too often become subordinate to the competitive and acquisitive drives of institutions (Knight, 2013). It is also significant that MacIntyre thinks that personal vice is a cause of institutional corruption as much as the institutions themselves (1984). He argues that the ancient Greek vice, pleonexia (the avaricious drive to have more and more) has become a central virtue of persons who act (consciously or otherwise) to support the capitalist system (1984 & 2013). Thus MacIntyre thinks practices can in theory (even though they have not yet in practice!) interrupt the institutional arrangements and selfish personal dispositions that drive injustice in the contemporary Western world.
Significant from an educational point of view is, MacIntyre’s (1987 & 2013) argument that the greatest hope of communities overcoming the worst excesses of capitalism resides in persons acting together within institutions and especially – educational ones. A key claim of MacIntyre’s lecture on the Idea of an Educated Public is that it was precisely when a group of persons pursued the practice of moral philosophy within the institutional settings of universities and debating societies that an educated public, able to share common goods, came to emerge in eighteenth century Scotland (1987). For MacIntyre educational institutions should both 1) support students to learn how to think for themselves and 2) act for the common good. Supporting students to learn how to participate in practices is arguably central to MacIntyre’s account of how educational institutions might challenge unjust social orders today.
Burns T (2013) Revolutionary Aristotelianism? In Virtue and Politics: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism, Blackledge P & Knight K (Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press)
Knight K (2013) Revolutionary Aristotelianism, in Virtue and Politics: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism, Blackledge P & Knight K (Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press)
MacIntyre A (1984) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, (Indiana: University of Notre Dame)
MacIntyre A (1987) The Idea of an Educated Public, pp 15-36 in Education and Values: The Richard Peters Lectures, ed. By Haydon G, (London: Institute of Education)
MacIntyre A (2013) Where we were, where we are, where we need to be, in Virtue and Politics: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism, Blackledge P & Knight K (Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press)