Helen Jeys On Aristotle, Paths To Flourishing For Students And Educational Excellence

Philosophy has no boundaries or borders. It influences people from all walks of life and one of the main reasons for creating the Stoic Athenaeum was to talk to people from different backgrounds and see what life lessons could be unearthed.

An aspect of philosophy that interests me is how it intersects with education. This fascination is also shared by the Head Mistress of Manchester High School For Girls, Helen Jeys.

I’m pleased to present a conversation with Helen that dives into her interest in Aristotle, how she applies the concept of eudaimonia to education and why introducing philosophy to younger generations is more important than ever before.

Thanks for taking the time to talk Helen. It’s always fun chatting to others about their philosophical interests. I read that you were a graduate of Durham University where you studied religion and philosophy. What made you want to study philosophy in the first place?

Actually, my real passion when I went to university was ancient history. I studied Ancient Greek and Hebrew at university and reading texts in their original language opened issues surrounding hermeneutics that I found fascinating.

 In fact, I had already chosen my PhD topic of post-Holocaust hermeneutics with a particular focus on Genesis 22 when I decided to go into education instead of further research. 

Perhaps the analytical, critical approach that hermeneutics encouraged led me down the philosophical path!  Philosophy is an area of interest that I developed more during my teaching career and in tune with my love of writing,

I wrote my first book in 2004; something I will return to later I hope. I think my university experience, nevertheless, lit the touchpaper; this has resulted in a genuine love of philosophy.

Having checked out your article in Open Up Chorlton, I know you’re an Aristotle fan. What is it about Aristotle that you admire and how do you bring his practices into your work as the Head Mistress of Manchester High School for Girls?

I think that Aristotle encourages us to think about what it really means to be a human being, what ‘potential’ really means and what our duties as human beings should, ideally, comprise. 

Obviously, one must consider Aristotle’s ‘sitz im leben’ and there are many contextual views of Aristotle that I oppose. I remain fascinated by the premises upon which so many of his ideas are based.  Aristotle’s ideas on human potential, the importance of reason, of the fulfilment of potential, the importance of character and values have all had a huge impact on me and my attitude to life in general. 

His ideas made me question my own values, the attitude I have to morality, to my career as an exceptionally busy mother of two busy young men and my approach to education.

I talk to our pupils a lot about the importance of character, the importance of ‘educating the heart’, about making things ‘habitual’ and of doing what we can to fulfil our potential. 

Indeed, even the values in my school have been influenced by this kind of approach; wellbeing, happiness, compassion, learning – values that I think are crucial to Aristotelian thinking – are right at the heart of the school.

I’m fascinated by the Greek idea of eudaimonia and its connotations of being a ‘path to flourishing.’ What is your personal interpretation of the phrase?

It is too easy to consider eudaimonia as ‘happiness’ don’t you think?  For me, eudaimonia is contentment, contemplation, personal satisfaction and I do feel that – as humans – we are on a quest to ensure that we are satisfied with our lives and we should do what we can to flourish as human beings – to reach our potential as we see it. 

When I have been faced with milestones in my own life, I have asked myself which path I should take to ensure that I flourish as a human being.  Sometimes, this has led me to make tough decisions and decisions that may not have given me happiness in the short-term but, in the long-term, they really have.

If you could go back in time and speak to Aristotle about a certain subject, what would it be and why?

I would go back and talk to Aristotle about his attitude towards gender and class.  I don’t think he got everything right – I have a huge problem with some of his contextual thinking – but, of course, I am not sure whether one should have an absolutist attitude to the validity of philosophical thinking which is centuries old!

What other schools of philosophy do you like, and have you applied any specific practices into your everyday life?

When I did ‘A-level’ French, I studied Camus and Sartre.  I was and am hugely influenced by existentialist thinking. I love the idea (if not the reality) of true freedom, of being authentic (or trying our best to be) and of not classifying people or putting them into a ‘box.’

People can and should feel that they can change – I don’t think that we need to be the product of what we were yesterday.   My French teacher talked about the importance of ‘interacting horizontally rather than vertically’ and this has stayed with me.

How has philosophy helped you during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It hasn’t always helped me. I am a deep thinker and so much of what has happened in the pandemic has caused so many difficulties for so many people, so it is difficult not to over-think or to ruminate.

I do feel that philosophy has and continues to remind me of the vital importance of education and of its liberating impact.   At the same time, the pandemic reminds me (and this is useful I think) of how we need to prioritise our young people and their mental health; they have had such an incredibly difficult time over the last few years. 

Our school community has also returned with a focus on coming back together as just that – a community.  We encourage our students to support each other, to be kind, to be friends; another element of Aristotelian thinking.

Teaching philosophy to children can be rewarding, though there does seem to be the image of stuffy ‘academic’ philosophy being a barrier to entry. What techniques would you use to introduce young people to someone like Aristotle and inspire them to do their own learning?

Teaching philosophy is a constant source of joy for me.  I find that pupils love ideas – whether they are ideas from last week or from 2000 years ago. Many of the challenges we face as human beings are the same now as they were centuries ago.

 I also think that writers and ethicists like Philippa Foote, Warnock, Murdoch and the like have ensured that the views of ancient philosophers have remained alive and well.

 I also like – from a student perspective – how writers such as Peter Vardy have related areas like Virtue Ethics to current issues; I always remember his analogy of whether one should throw a computer out of a window if it stops working.  Is this a virtuous action, reflecting the golden mean or not?  

Writers are trying hard to make philosophy relevant to today and ‘Philosophy for Children’ is a super programme.

What initiatives are you planning to introduce to Manchester High School for Girls in the coming years to further improve student well-being?

We are always looking for proactive ways of helping to improve student wellbeing.  It is one of our values, we have a lesson named after it, we have lots of external speakers coming in to talk to our students about how they can support their wellbeing and, fundamentally, we listen to our students when they raise concerns. 

We try and make school – despite its pressures during these COVID times – as much fun as possible and with visitors who lead on Zumba, yoga and – even circus skills – we do what we can to ensure that our students understand the importance of balance in their lives. 

Fundamentally, I believe – passionately – that a happy student is one who can flourish – and we will continue to prioritise the happiness of our students as we continue to work through the pandemic. 

Are there any modern-day philosophers you would recommend that people look into?

We should welcome greater philosophical diversity; I am excited by the work of modern philosophers such as Dr Kathryn Gines, Ayn Rand and Judith Butler as well as the work of 20th century British female philosophers such as Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

 Anyone who encourages us to consider the big ideas, to self-reflect and to consider the world beyond our four walls, offers us opportunities to discuss, analyse and to evaluate. What could be better?

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