Aristotle states that since a city's educational system largely determines the character of its citizens, it is of the utmost importance that this system serve the overall ends of the city. Thus, Aristotle recommends the institution of public education, which he feels is preferable to the prevalent custom of parents having their children privately tutored.
Aristotle says that there are arguments to be made for teaching children what is useful, for teaching moral goodness, and for teaching pure knowledge for its own sake. He suggests that a great deal depends on how and to what end the subjects are taught. Certain kinds of practical knowledge are good, but children should not demean themselves by learning menial labor; it is fine to teach moral goodness, though there are many different conceptions of what is good and how it should be taught. Pure knowledge is good as well, but it should not be pursued to such an extent that it becomes overbearing. As a general rule, Aristotle suggests that knowledge is good to the extent that it satisfies one's mind or helps a friend, but it is dangerous when it becomes a skill that is rendered as a service to others.
Aristotle distinguishes four major disciplines of study: (1) reading and writing; (2) physical training or gymnastics; (3) music; and (4) drawing. Reading, writing, and drawing all have practical purposes and physical training promotes courage. Determining the value of music is trickier, but Aristotle suggests that it helps promote the proper use of leisure. In doing so, he distinguishes between work, play and relaxation, and leisure. Play and relaxation are forms of relief from hard work. Leisure is more than just relief; it is the medium in which happiness and a life of good quality can be pursued. If leisure consisted simply in play and relaxation, then a life of good quality—the end goal for which man strives—would be nothing more than play and relaxation. While music is not useful and does not promote courage, it helps man make use of his leisure. Similarly, the practical tools of reading, writing, and drawing can have application beyond their usefulness, and they can also widen man's knowledge and teach him to appreciate form and beauty.
Aristotle values physical training but warns that it should not be overdone, as it can create a savage character and stunt the development of the young. Aristotle recommends light training until the age of puberty, followed by three years of study. After those three years, physical training should begin in earnest. Working the mind and body simultaneously will be counter-productive.
Aristotle returns to the question of music's place in education. He offers three possible arguments for the use of music: (1) amusement and relaxation; (2) improvement of moral character; and (3) cultivation of the mind. Aristotle suggests that one learns a deeper and subtler appreciation of music by understanding what goes into its performance. However, education in music should not be taken beyond the point of learning an appreciation of rhythm and harmony: if students dedicate themselves to being skilled performers, they will be studying only to please others. For that reason, Aristotle suggests that students not learn the flute or harp, or, for that matter, any instrument requiring a great deal of skill.
Though the Politics ends quite abruptly with the discussion of some minor points of interest in regard to music, there is no reason to believe that some further section of the text has been lost. The Politics was compiled as lecture notes from the courses Aristotle taught at the Lyceum and was not intended for publication. The likely explanation for this ending, then, is that it marks the end of a specific lecture, though Aristotle perhaps taught further topics in political theory at another time.
Aristotle's firm stance against any kind of skill or knowledge that comes to be utilized for someone else's sake epitomizes his means-end dichotomy. Practical reasoning serves the entire city, of which each individual is a part, and speculative reasoning serves one's own happiness; each type of reasoning has its end in the self. When an individual engages in an activity whose end is to please others, such as playing music, however, that individual becomes a means for others to achieve leisure, ceasing to be an end in himself.
The aristocratic amateurism that Aristotle espouses evidences his elitist conception of class differences. Citizens should look down upon musicians and other such practitioners of arts because they practice their skill for the sake of others. Aristotle considers these practitioners simply a means for citizens to the end of leisure. As such, he inherently disparages the value of art for its own sake and the importance of art as self-expression—two notions integral to the modern conception of the self. Of course, ancient Greece was very different from the modern world. Citizens felt contempt for non-citizen manual laborers because their existence had worth only in the service of others. Their skills were not ends in themselves but rather means to others' ends.
Aristotle's discussion of music is difficult to understand for a number of reasons. Foremost among these is that very little is known about what Greek music actually sounded like. Historians know what instruments the Greeks played and that they based their melodies on different modal arrangements, which they felt were expressive of different states of character or emotion. Historians also know that music was very important to the Greeks: they felt that certain harmonies were divine and that music could express character and moral virtues better than any other medium. Aristotle believes that music can serve moral purposes because it can, quite literally, "represent" states of character just as paintings can represent trees and houses. By representing a virtuous character, music can serve as a very powerful tool for moral instruction.