If there’s one thing that homeschooling is good at, it’s breaking down barriers.
Most obviously, the barrier between home and school vanishes in homeschooling.
What this really means, however, is that the barrier between life and learning vanishes for homeschoolers. Since you don’t learn in a different place from where you live, you have no way of keeping the two activities separate.
Homeschooling, we might say is a “de-compartmentalizing” lifestyle. So, inspired by homeschooling’s tendency to de-comparmentalize, I offer the following philosophical reflection.
I just finished teaching my students Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In its very first chapter, Aristotle claims that every activity has a “telos” (“TELL-oss”).
(The Greek word “telos” officially means the same thing as the English word “end.” But it means “end” in the sense of “completion” or “goal,” not in the sense of just “stopping place.”)
What Aristotle means is that every activity has a point, or fulfills a function; every activity aims at something, or is designed to play a particular role — whether we realize it or not.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting.
I’m serious. This is really interesting.
(And stop smirking at my philosophy-geek-ness. You’re hurting my feelings.)
Aristotle claims that the telos of some activities is the activity itself.
For example, dancing is its own telos. You don’t dance in order to get somewhere. One doesn’t waltz one’s way to work in the morning. One dances simply to dance. (Or, in my case, one simply doesn’t dance at all.)
On the other hand, the telos of some activities is something other than the activity itself.
Garbage collectors don’t collect garbage, for instance, just for the pure joy of collecting garbage. They collect garbage so that they can earn money. And they earn money so they can feed their families. And they feed their families because that helps to fulfill their telos as fathers and mothers.
This means that there are hierarchies of activities, says Aristotle. You do some activities for the sake of other activities. And some times you do two or more activities for the sake of one.
For instance, you drive to the grocery store and you buy food (two different activities) so that you can engage in the (one) activity of eating.
Likewise, you rent a movie and buy a TV (two different activities) so that you can engage in the (one) activity of watching a movie.
The question is, why do you eat food and watch movies (two different activities)? Is the activity of eating food its own telos? Or is its telos something else? Is the activity of watching a movie its own telos? Or is its telos something else?
In other words, do all our activities “meet at the top”? Is there some one activity that is the ultimate telos of all the rest (and which is even its own telos)? (For example, do we eat food and watch movies in order to be happy?)
Or are our lives compartmentalized and fragmented? Do we have one pile of activities here — with their own ultimate telos — and another pile of activities there — with a completely different ultimate telos?
Homeschooling is a de-compartmentalizing way of life; it unites groups of activities that might seem separate to other people.
The question is, does homeschooling help you to organize all your activities into a single, more-or-less organized heap — which has a single, final, highest purpose at the top?
Or is it possible, even as a homeschooler, to live a “laundry room life” — a life filled with different “baskets” (i.e., hierarchies) of “clothes” (i.e., activities), each with a different “sock” (i.e., telos) at its top?
Furthermore, we might ask, if any one of us has managed to get her or his life’s activities arranged into a single pile, what is the telos at the top?
Aristotle claims that the ultimate telos of everything we do is the activity of happiness. (That’s right. He thinks happiness is something you do; see, e.g., here and here.)
But what do you think?
[Micah is a Mt. Sophia graduate who is working on his doctoral dissertation at The Catholic University of America. He also gets to teach philosophy (as a “graduate fellow”), which he loves.]