What is an education for? It is a question seldom investigated thoroughly. The ancient philosophers had little doubt: They lived in a city-state whose success and very existence depended on the willingness of citizens to overcome the human tendency to seek their individual, self-interested goals and to make the sacrifices needed for the community’s well-being. Their idea of education, therefore, was moral and civic, not merely instrumental. They reasoned that if a state or community is to be good, its citizens must be good, so they aimed at an education that would produce virtuous people and good citizens.
Some two thousand years later, from the 16th through the 18th centuries, a different group of philosophers in Italy, England and France introduced a powerful new idea. Their world was dominated by ambitious princes and kings who were rapidly asserting ever greater authority over the lives of their people and trampling on the traditional expectations of individuals and communities. In the philosophers’ view, every human being was naturally endowed with three essential rights: to defend his life, liberty and lawfully acquired property.
The responsibility of the state, therefore, was limited and largely negative: to protect the people from external enemies and not to interfere with the rights of individual citizens. Suspicious of the claims of church and state to inculcate virtue as mere devices to serve the selfish interests of their rulers, most philosophers of the Enlightenment believed that moral and civic instruction was not the business of the state.