By: Dr Brian Ball, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at New College of the Humanities

I believe that education can be transformative. In fact, I think that it can be transformative in something like the way that high-level (e.g. Olympic) sport can be. Allow me to explain, beginning in what is perhaps an unexpected place: Aristotle’s doctrine of hylomorphism.

Aristotle held that in order for an object to exist, a form must be combined with some matter. For example, a sculptor has not yet created a statue (i.e. caused one to exist) when she merely has in mind the form that it will take – when she merely conceived what it will be like; she must actually ensure that some matter takes on this form. Similarly, she has not yet made a statue if she has simply acquired some bronze – she must also shape it (e.g. through molding) into a statue! A statue only exists, then, when some matter has a certain form, or shape.

What does this have to do with sport, education, and transformation? Well, quite a lot, actually. The word ‘transformation’ contains the part ‘trans’, which means across, and ‘form’ – so it would appear to describe a kind of transition from one form to another. And I think this happens in both sport and education.

If you have ever seen the Olympics, you will have noticed that the athletes in different sports have remarkably different physiques. They come in lots of different shapes and sizes. Sprinters have surprisingly strong upper bodies; long distance runners and high-jumpers are slender; shot-putters are heavy set; swimmers have broad shoulders, narrow hips, and an elastic and almost pellucid quality to their skin; and so on. In short, Olympic athletes come in many different (physical) forms.


It seems to me that this is not a mere coincidence: rather, it is because the athletes do what they do, and train in the ways that they do, that they have the physiques that they do. Obviously, not all the differences of physique from one sport to another are to be explained in this way: basketball players are tall, and gymnasts are short, but they don’t become this way by playing basketball or practicing gymnastics; rather, they succeed in their respective fields because of their physical features, and are selected on that basis. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that if you do a lot of long-distance running, you will end up with the slight build of a long-distance runner; and if you lift a lot of weights, you will end up with the musculature of a weight-lifter. They say you have to do something for ten thousand hours to become a professional: if a little amateur engagement can change your body, professional training can no doubt transform it.

In my view, the same is true in the case of education. Academic disciplines are highly specialized. The intellectual training of an economist is very different to that of a philosopher, which is in turn different to that of a dramatist – and so on. Those of us who work in these fields have put in our ten thousand hours employing the specific methodologies of our respective subjects. Those who study these subjects undergo an intensive training in the methods in question – they develop certain of their mental muscles, as it were, perhaps to the exclusion of others.

It can, of course, be hard to recognize this: what form our thinking takes is not as readily manifest as the shape our body takes; you can’t see it, for example! Nevertheless, students emerge from higher education with certain distinctive habits of thought – methods for approaching tasks, and solving problems, that they can employ in their lives and their careers. They may have had some prior proclivity for some of these patterns of intellectual behaviour, but if so they are not just reinforced, but positively developed, and enhanced, through their education.

Let me close by linking back to Aristotle and form. Aristotle thought that matter takes on form – as when some bronze is shaped into the form of a statue. But he also thought that our minds can take on forms as well – albeit in a slightly different way. As the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid put it in his 1764 work, An Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense, for Aristotle, in perception, ‘external things make impressions upon the mind, like impressions of the seal upon wax’. The seal, or insignia, has a certain form, and when it is pressed into hot wax the wax takes on that form – though not in exactly the same way: where the shape of the seal is convex, for instance, that of the wax is concave. Nonetheless, we may say that in seeing – or more generally learning – something, we become informed. Similarly, then, we might expect that through education, and disciplinary training, we are intellectually transformed.