Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Review: Colossians (commentary) by John Davenant

I finally finished this behemoth of a commentary. This was my second foray into the Geneva Series of Commentaries put out by Banner of Truth, and unlike the Ezekiel commentary, I actually read all of this one. In my own defense, even though both books are the same number of pages (~800), Ezekiel was double-columned, so I don't feel too bad about just skimming it...
Davenant has two goals in his commentary on Colossians:
1) to fully and clearly exposit the text;
2) to fully and clearly refute the best Catholic expositions of the text.
He meets these two goals admirably, even if many people will be put off by the length of his commentary.
There are many Bible commentaries out there, so instead of focusing on aspects that are fairly common to them all (at least to all of the good ones), I'll focus on some things unique to Davenant:
1) The original publication was done in Latin by the Anglican Bishop of Salsibury John Davenant. This version was translated with notes added in 1831, so the language does not read with the regular density of a Puritan book. In fact, I was a bit surprised at how clear and simply the prose was, given the age of the book and the fact that it was in Latin.
2) In a sense, this is both a commentary and a treasury of the thoughts of the church fathers on the ideas found in Colossians. In arguing against the Catholics (specifically against the most recent and thoughtful Catholics available to Davenant: namely Bellarmine and the documents of the Council of Trent, along with several less-well-known English Catholics), Davenant not only makes his case from Scripture but draws on the entire corpus of church history as a witness that the Reformed Christian view of the Bible is the one most in accord with every major thinker from the early church through the Reformation. In addition to church fathers such as Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine, Scholastic writers like Aquinas and Peter Lombard form a major part of his supporting arguments. Though I didn't count them, I'm willing to bet that there are more quotations and defenses drawn from Aquinas than there are from the entire generation of Reformers (Luther through Calvin) put together. Through the exposition of the book of Colossians, it is Davenant's goal to show that the Reformation was just that- a reform of the church not into something new, but into what it had always been.
3) The exposition of the text itself is clear and thoughtful, with a good mix of explanation and application.
4) This particular volume is especially handy, as it contain an index for each of the major themes of the book (subject, Scripture, and, especially interesting, an "Index of Questions Incidentally and Briefly Determined in the Work," which includes questions like "Whether the Pope of Rome hath apostolical dignity and authority" and "Whether it is possible for the regenerate man always to retain the habitual intention of pleasing God." Even more useful, the translator has included a series of notes intended to introduce the various theologians cites by Davenant. These notes are thorough and fair, giving biographical information about the theologian, a brief overview of his historical importance, and places where you can go to find out more (though of course most of the books referenced are now out of print- which means they're usually available as Googlebooks...). So, for example, if you don't know who "Cajetan" is, the note on pg 12 will tells you
Cajetan; otherwise Thomas de Vio, of Gaeta, another eminent defender of the Papacy, who flourished prior to Bellarmin [who forms the preceding note]... He wrote notes on Aristotle and Aquinas, and an Exposition on almost all the Books of the Old and New Testament... Though an amiable man, he entertained such lofty ideas of papal authority, that in his efforts to reclaim Luther, he became a strenuous opposer of that Reformer... He was made a Cardinal, and afterwards Archbishop of Pelermo...

5) And most importantly, Davenant's commentary deepens one's appreciations for Paul's fairly difficult letter.

Obviously the big challenge of this book is going to be its length. Few people relish the thought of sitting down to a nearly-thousand page tome that covers less than four pages of the Bible. But I can promise you that it is worth it. I encourage anyone and everyone to pick up this book and resolve to spend a year reading through Colossians along with Davenant. It will be well worth the investment. To help you decide, here is a sampling of Davenant's (translated) prose. If you can understand and enjoy this, then the commentary is for you:
[On Colossians 2:13, "And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him..."] We shudder to touch the dead bodies of our friends: but God is not only ready to touch our dead souls, but to embrace them; and not only that, but would even restore them to life. This should inflame us with mutual love towards God. (pg 456)
[On Colossians 1:13, "Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son"] God translates us then from that melancholy and gloomy kingdom, when he illuminates our hearts by pouring into them faith, when he changes and restores our will by imparting grace; for, being enlightened and sanctified, a man is by that very act translated from the power of darkness into the kingdom of his Son (pg 158)
[On Colossians 1:14, "In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins."] He [Paul] points at Christ's bloody death: not that the previous acts and sufferings of Christ did nothing to merit human salvation; but that by pouring out his blood, i.e. in death, there was a completion of satisfaction. Although, as Aquinas truly says, any one act of Christ was meritorious in our behalf, yet to make satisfaction for the guilt of human nature which was under the bond of death, it was necessary that Christ should sustain death. But we are redeemed by this blood, or by this death, of Christ, inasmuch as it expiated the wrath of God, inasmuch as it dissipated the power of the devil. (pg 167)

Monday, June 25, 2012

One job of the church

The church, when it's not seduced by consumerist spirituality, is in the business of cultivating ordinary Christians, people who are united to Christ by faith and are in it for the long haul... it transforms people, not by giving them life-changing experiences but by repetition, continually telling the story of Christ so that people may hear and take hold of him by faith. For we do not just receive Christ by faith once at the beginning of our Christian lives and then go on to do the real work of transformation through our good works. We keep needing Christ the way hungry people need bread, and we keep receiving him whenever we hear the gospel preached and believe it. So what transforms us over the long haul is not one or two great life-changing sermons (although these can be helpful from time to time) but the repeated teaching and preaching of Christ, Sunday after Sunday, so that we never cease receiving him into our hearts.
-Philip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians, pg 133

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Spengler on the Mystery of History

Goethe's Faust

"A boundless mass of human being, flowing in a stream without banks; up-stream, a dark past wherein our time-sense loses all powers of definition and restless or uneasy fancy conjures up geological periods to hide away an eternally-unsolvable riddle; down-stream, a future even so dark and timeless-such is the groundwork of the Faustian picture of human history."
-Oswald Spengler, "Decline of the West", 105

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What are the proper roles of the different levels of government?

I love reading old politics and history textbooks (I know, I know, I'm a nerd). I especially like pulling lines and ideas out of these books and asking my Intro to American government students to comment on them. For example, this comes from A History of American Government and Culture by Harold Rugg (1931):
The American people have found it necessary to set up three kinds of government:
I. A national government, which manages such things as
1. Issuing money and establishing national banks.
2. Maintaining postal service.
3. Conducting affairs of state with foreign countries.
4. Arranging matters of industry and trade among states and with foreign countries.
5. Defending the country against foreign or native disturbers.
6. Raising money for all these national things.
7. Deciding who can vote in national elections and hold Federal offices.
II. A state government in each of the 48 states, which manages such things within each state as
1. Education.
2. All questions of property, industry, and trade.
3. Decisions as to who can vote and hold office within the state.
4. Legislation, that is, the making of criminal and civil laws.
III. Local governments in towns, cities, and counties. these vary greatly in different states, but in general they have charge, within the local territory only and under the laws of the state, of such things as
1. Protecting lives and property through their departments of police, fire, health, streets, and the like.
2. Education.
3. Regulating trade, transportation, and other public utilities. 

The questions for the students would be:
1) What is the same today, and what is different?
2) Are these differences good or bad?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Review: "The Pleasures of God" by John Piper

Saying I have a love-hate relationship with John Piper would be too strong a statement. It's more a love-meh relationship. I love his preaching- heck, I'd be willing to say that in my opinion he's easily the best living preacher. But I've regularly found his books to be, well, meh. Not that they're theologically bad, it's just that they're long and dry and only really work if you read them in his voice in your head, and that gets tiring after a while. So I picked up The Pleasures of God (provided free by the publisher on the condition that I write a review- not necessarily a good one) with no more than moderate expectations. The book lived up to my expectations.

Summary: The Pleasures of God is about just that: what makes God happy? To that end, Piper broke the book into two sections: 1) The pleasure of God in Himself (in Jesus, in His actions, in creation, in His own Glory); 2) the pleasure of God in His people (in election, in justification, in providence, in our prayer, in our obedience).

Analysis: Like pretty much every Piper book I've ever read, it's theologically correct, full of wonderful insights, dry, and about a hundred pages longer than it really needs to be. Also, it is about how God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

Who Should Read This Book: People who will likely never pick up Jonathan Edwards. Really, The Pleasures of God is an interpretation of Edwards' theology in The End for which God Created the World.  Which is a dense and difficult book that most people will never even start, let alone finish. Even though this book is longer, it's a much easier read and the place to begin if you want to get the gist of Edwards' ideas.

Who Should Not Read This Book: People who've read more than three of Piper's other books, or who've never had any encounter with Piper before. If you've read a good number of Piper's books, you know that he just applies the same theme (God's Glory) to different topics. Which isn't a bad thing, of course. It just means that after a while it gets repetitive. On the other hand, if you've never encountered Piper, his books just aren't the place to start. I recommend getting on his website ( and listening to a few of his sermons. If you enjoy them, pick up the book and give it a read.

Having said all of that, the idea behind the book is a critical one for modern Christianity. Especially in modern America, where our idea of God bounces between a kindly, inept grandfather figure and a buddy who mildly approves of everything we do, Piper's revelation of the Biblical theme that God is ultimately delighted in Himself, rather than in us. So I suppose technically another category of people Who Should Read This Book  is that of those modern Americans who've bought into the various lies about God that modern American culture shills to us 24/7...

Overall, this is a worthwhile read, and very useful as a devotional. I recommend reading it with a group and taking advantage of the study guide in the back.

"Praise!" by Joachim Neander

Praise to Jehovah! the almighty King of Creation
Swell heaven's chorus, chime in every heart, every nation!
O my soul wake-
Harp, lute, and psaltery take,
Sound forth in glad adoration. 
Praise to Jehovah! whose love o'er thy course is attending,
Redeeming thy life, and thee from all evil defending.
Through all the past,
O my soul! over thee cast,
His sheltering wings were bending! 
Praise to Jehovah! whose fence has been planted around thee,
Who, from His heavens, with blessing and mercy has crowned thee,
Think, happy one!
What He can do, and has done,
Since in His pity He found thee. 
Praise to Jehovah! all that has breath praise Him, sing praises;
Bless God, O my soul, and all that is in me, sing praises.
In Him rejoice,
Until for ever thy voice
The hymn of eternity raises!
-By Joachim Neander, found in Hymns from the Land of Luther and translated by Jane Borthwick

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Morals and People in the Catholic Church

Over at the First Things blog, there's a short piece by William Doino about how the press loves to pick on the Vatican. He cites as an example a quote from a Reuters piece (“This all seems to be a power game that matters only to the power players. It seems to be a Church hierarchy further distancing itself from people in the pews.”), as well as mentioning the firing of the head of the Vatican bank and the arrest of the Pope's butler. Both of which bring up two things which are not the point of the article, but which are worthy of further consideration.
First, these and other much more public stories over the past two decades have done great apologetic harm to the Catholic church. For almost three centuries after the Council of Trent, the standard Catholic apologetic against Protestants has been: we fixed the moral problems of the church (the theological problems never needed fixing anyway), so you can come back now. Over and over and over that has been the argument coming out of Rome, even as they have agreed with the earliest writings of Luther and Zwingli charging the Church of the early 1500s with atrocious morals. Now that those problems are fixed, we can, they argue, come home.
But of course, what we've been seeing in the past twenty years (and increasingly the evidence suggests that the last two decades are not isolated, but rather a part of a long chain of abuses) is that the moral problem has not been fixed. Rather, it has been hushed up.
This of course isn't to say that we dismiss an argument just because the people making it are sinners. If we did that, we could never listen to anyone, ever. We Protestants sin just as much (often without the guilt over our sin that our Catholic friends experience). My point is merely that it undercuts what has been a classic Catholic apologetic argument in favor of the papacy. I'll be interested to see how Catholic apologetics changes over the next couple of decades in light of these new revelations of corruption in the hierarchy...

Second, the charge is noted here (and has been made regularly in other places) that Rome is increasingly distanced from "the people in the pews." There is a divide, note observers, between the church hierarchy and the congregation. I would merely point out that A) there may not be so big a divide between Rome's non-American congregations and the church hierarchy (South American, African, and Asian churches seem to have little dissent with the Vatican); and B) the idea of needing unity between the people and the clergy is a fairly American one anyway. There's no idea in Catholicism that the church structure somehow represents (or even needs) the congregation. Remember, this is a religion where you can hold a service without anyone other than the priest present. What the people in the pew think is so far off traditional Catholicism's radar that these challenges are no doubt a bit puzzling to Pope Benedict- if he ever even hears them. The Catholic Church is (and, since at least the Council of Trent, formally has been) concerned with 1) the majesty and glory of the structure of the church (particularly the office of the Pope); 2) the governance of the Papal States (now just Vatican City); 3) the running of the diocese of Rome (the Pope's formal bishopric); 4) the theology of the church at large. (This isn't my list, this is from both Thomas Noble's works on the papacy and my own classes at Catholic University.) Nowhere on this list does "embodying the thoughts of the congregation" make an appearance.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Book Review: The Art of War in the Middle Ages by C.W.C. Oman

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We all know the what war was like in the Middle Ages, right? A bunch of rich guys get on horses and run into each other with lances, swords, and axes until one of them can't any more. And... that's pretty much spot on. But! How did the world (or at least the West, but come on, that's the important part of the world, right?) come to that state of affairs? How did we get from the Roman army -one of the most well-trained, well-equipped, and efficient killing machines ever- to an "army" consisting of a few hundred individuals trying to run over each other with horses? The answer to that question is the subject of C.W.C. Oman's classic The Art of War in the Middle Ages.
And it is deservedly a classic. Despite only being 165 pages long, Oman packs in both a relatively fast-paced narrative (he does cover almost 1200 years, after all) and lots of interesting details. Also impressive: he wrote what has become the definitive text while an undergrad at Oxford in 1885. [Sigh] I've wasted my life...
As mentioned, the book covers a 1200-year stretch, ranging from destruction of the last "real" Roman army by heavy cavalry at the Battle of Adrianople (378 A.D.) to the last major victory of heavy cavalry at the battle of Marignano (1515 A.D.). The stretch of time between these two battles saw the rise, dominance, decline, and collapse of armored horsemen on the battlefield. Through these centuries developed not only a style of warfare, but an entire way of life entirely focused around the idea that cavalry was supreme in the art of war.
How did this happen? It began with the size of the Roman Empire and the series of Civil Wars that plagued the Empire at the end of the Third and beginning of the Fourth centuries A.D. For nearly 600 years, the Roman legion (infantry) had been the dominant military force in the world. A series of civil wars (which Oman does not discuss) depleted the Roman legions, forcing each successive Emperor (and their challengers) to rely increasingly on barbarian mercenaries (usually cavalry) to fill out the shrinking ranks. This meant that money and training were flowing at a steady pace from Rome to tribes outside its own borders. When the Civil Wars came to a (temporary) end with the accession of Constantine (303 A.D.), there was so little left of the old legions that Constantine simply reshaped the army around cavalry. This had the dual benefit of utilizing forces already employed by the Empire (though not native Romans) and giving the new army sufficient speed that it could reply to barbarian incursions anywhere in Europe much faster than the old infantry-based legions. On the other hand, it meant that 1) Roman citizens no longer filled the ranks of the military, and the loyalty of the army was now only the loyalty of paid mercenaries; 2) even as the barbarian cavalry became increasingly important and the remaining Roman legions increasingly ignored, ill-trained, and ill-equipped, tactics did not change. So when the Emperor Valens led the remnants of the Roman army (~25,000 men) against the Gothic cavalry, he did it as if he were leading the same trim and well-fed legions that Caesar had led against the virtually naked barbarian horsemen of four hundred years earlier. The result was the utter destruction of the Roman Army, the opening of the way for the barbarians into the heart of the Western Empire, and the establishment of cavalry as the force to be reckoned with on the battlefield for over a millennium.

Oman gives three quick surveys of the development of warfare. In the first, he talks about the rise of the military class (knights, chivalry, and all that) and the final destruction of the infantry holdouts in the West (mostly in England and Viking nations, all of whom eventually "converted" to cavalry). Two of the common assumptions of this time are that 1) war is a matter of hard work and courage, not of any kind of tactics or skill. That is, a single knight with enough boldness can only be stopped by another knight with equal or greater boldness. No foot soldier will ever stand against a charging armored horseman; 2) those who meet the conditions of 1) are better (both morally and socially) than those who do not, especially than those who do not even try. So we see in warfare a microcosm of the principles of feudalism (or perhaps vice-versa).

In the second survey he discusses the development of war in the Byzantine Empire (on which he has a whole book). Only in this remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire does war survive as an "art", where it is studied, practiced, and engaged in by professional generals and professional armies. Yet, even here the transition to cavalry is made, though in a more limited and mixed way (the Byzantines keep the old Roman artillery, for example, and even expand on it with the invention of Greek fire...).

In the third survey, Oman explores the centuries of the dominance of heavy cavalry (roughly 1066-1346). In this time in the West, tactics, organization, and cohesion of large armies are virtually unknown. "Battle" consists of two armies of heavily armored nobles (and their feudal hangers-on) smashing into each other until one side quits and goes home. Endurance and courage become the virtues necessary to win battles. Which means that 1) any use of even the most rudimentary tactics usually defeats these Medieval "armies"; 2) if there is any chance that sheer hard fighting will win the day, these Medieval "armies" will usually overcome. The Crusades -aberrations in Medieval warfare though they are- are remarkable examples of both of these points. Whenever the Muslims had qualified leadership, they won. Whenever it came down to who could fight harder or longer, the Crusaders won.

In the last chapters, Oman discusses how the dominance of cavalry in the Middle Ages came to an end. Namely, through the return of infantry. In Switzerland and England two styles of combat arose which utterly defeated the usefulness of the heavily armoured horse on the battlefield (Bohemia and the Ottoman armies are briefly discussed as well). The use of the pike and halberd in Switzerland and the use of the longbow in England (and the war wagon in Bohemia and gunpowder in the Ottoman army) unhorsed the cavalrymen so severely that he has never made a comeback. Oman then discusses how these innovations were themselves made obsolete by the rise of combined arms and new technologies at the beginning of the Early Modern Era.

Really, this book was just a delight to read. While it may not be for those who aren't interested in military history or the Medieval world, I found it fascinating and worth a second look (the first being in undergrad, where I may have just skimmed it...). In fact, it's good enough that I'm going to keep my eyes open for his longer and more mature two volume edition.
In addition to recommending this to Medievalists and military historians, I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to write history. Oman's style is short, full, and readable. He conveys a lot of information in a few words without being boring. If more history books were written like this, we'd have more people interested in history.

Highly recommended.

Book Review: MOMumental by Jennifer Grant

Despite reading this whole book from cover to cover, I can honestly say that Jennifer Grant has not made me want to be a mother.
Of course, I'm hardly the targeted demographic for this kind of a book. I'm not a parent, not a suburbanite, and not even a chick. Frankly, I'm really the last person you'd expect to read and review MOMumental. But, it was free (on the condition that I write a review- not necessarily a good one), and I'm a sucker for free books. So here goes...

Summary: This book is not so much a coherent narrative as it is a series of vignettes on being a mother. There's a loose theme in that Grant relates her transformation from a neurotic new mother with a desire to be the perfect mom (a desire that borders on some kind of disorder) into a much more laid-back mother who loves her kids but sets general patterns of good parenting, rather than striving to be perfect all the time. But again, that's only a loose theme. By and large the book is just a series of stories from Grant's life as a mother.

Strengths: Grant is a clear and engaging writer. Which makes sense, given that she does it professionally (for her local paper, for the Chicago Tribune, and for Christianity Today). Her stories are well written and enjoyable to read- I think I knocked to book out in about three hours without too much effort. In terms  of content, her dedication to her family and her concern for the art (or skill, or adventure, or whatever) of being a mother come through on every page. In a sense, this book reminds me a lot of the James Herriot novels (not that she's quite that caliber a writer) in that she takes what is clearly a trying, messy, and grey-hair-inducing job and talks about it in a way that is simply delightful. Moreover, most of the points she makes seem to be good ones, at least as far as I know: the closest I've ever come to being a "mother" was caring for animals in 4H and FFA growing up- all of which we ate after less than a year. So take my endorsement of the practical wisdom contained in this book with a grain of salt (and a pinch of oregano).

Weaknesses: There seem to be three big weaknesses in the book, all of which may be the result of the kind of book this is, rather than any sort of personal weaknesses in the author.

Theology: There's not much theology in this book, but what there is, is not encouraging. The few references to religious belief are either elevations of common grace to where it is central (see the last point below for more on that) or the kind of ecumenism that goes beyond agreement on non-essentials between Christians and becomes accepting doctrines that embrace false gospels. I won't give examples because, again, that's not really the point of the book and it should not be held to the standard of a theological text. It does, however, make me want to know what kind of spiritual education she's giving her kids. It is just the vague "there's a God/Jesus loves you" she mentions? Or does it carry some kind of actual and substantial faith and the doctrine of atonement that saves? The answer to that question (not found in the book) is the difference between a book on mothering that gives good tips and a book on mothering that is useful in a broader sense to Christians...

Fathering: One character noticeable primarily by his absence is the father. Again, just as this is not a book about theology, so it is also not a book about fathering. So this is not a strong criticism. But, writing a 250 page book about being a mother and only rarely even mentioning the father (with nothing at all said about how he helps/contributes/leads in the family) does raise questions. These questions are not so much about him as a father as they are about her as a writer. It's like writing a book about being a wife but never talking about the husband. The good news is, I'm making the (rare) suggestion that this book be made longer to correct this problem...

Potential Family Idolatry: The biggest concern I've got -and again, this is likely just because of the nature of the book- is that Grant has elevated her family into an object of worship. She uses language that makes this explicit throughout, but this is especially clear in her comparisons of family dinner to Jewish Seder meals or Christian communion. Of course there are parallels, but only parallels, not direct connections. The family is a good thing. But it's 1) a temporary thing; 2) not promised to everyone- even if we work hard at it; and 3) is at the end of the day a common grace institution, and as such of secondary importance.
Again, this isn't to say that I think Grant is guilty of sinning or anything like that, I think it's more that the nature of her book necessarily elevates the family and that her choice of language pushes that elevation a little farther than appropriate. Speaking about the family as a good thing need not (and should not) become speaking about the family as a holy thing. Such language, for Christians, should be reserved for Christ and the church...

Overall, this was an interesting and worthwhile read, though only to those interested in the nuts and bolts of motherhood.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not in any way induced to write a favorable review.

Things the Publisher/Publicist asked me to include to make this review searchable (again, I'm not being paid and not required to say anything- including the following):

•How to be a great mom
• How to be a good mother
• How to be a mom
• Being a mom
• What is a good parent
• How to be good parents
• Parenthood
• Raising a child
• MOMumental Book
• Jennifer Grant Book
• Worthy Publishing

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Plato on Education (I): What's it For?

Just another brick in the wall...

We regularly hear politicians talk about the crisis in American education. Whether discussing primary, secondary, higher, or continuing education, there is a general agreement that American schools are in trouble. To help give us some perspective on the issue, I'm going to do at least one post (hopefully two) on the view of education given in Plato's The Laws.

To begin the discussion, we have to have an understanding of the purpose of education. One of the biggest problems in the modern world is that very often we speak past each other when we talk about the "failure" of American schools. To speak of failure implies that we have some idea of what success should look like- often a very different idea from those held by others. Plato begins his discussion of education by insisting on a clear and useful definition. What we sometimes mean by "educated", Plato says, is when one has been "directed towards petty trade or the merchant-shipping business or something like that." In other words, what we would mean by a trade or technical education.
But... what we have in mind is education from childhood in virtue, a training which produces a keen desire to become a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and be ruled as justice demands. I suppose we should want to mark off this sort of training from others and reserve the title 'education' for it alone. (The Laws, 643)
In other words, the fundamental purpose of education is virtue. We of course still hold this to some extent today. If a teacher were to teach a child how to use a hammer, but not the difference between using it on a nail and using it on someone's head we would consider the teacher to have failed, however well the skill of hammering had been transferred. Mere technical knowledge cannot ever truly be the goal of education:
A training directed to acquiring money or a robust physique, or even to some intellectual facility not guided by reason and justice, we should want to call coarse and illiberal, and say that it had no claim whatever to be called 'education.' (The Laws, 644)
The goal of education must be transcendent virtue. Pursing worldly goods and selfish passions will never bring the individual to the level of virtue that is the potential of the human being. The goodness of the human person -and therefore of the state as a whole- is reliant upon a solid foundation of education:
As a rule, men with a correct education become good, and nowhere in the world should education be despised, for when combined with great virtue, it is an asset of incalculable value. If it ever becomes corrupt, but can be put right again, this is a lifelong task which everyone should undertake to the limit of his strength. (The Laws, 644)
In these three quotations, we see the major Platonic ideas of the fundamentals of education.

First, as has been noted, education has the goal of virtue. What kind of virtue? The virtue of justice. Justice in two contexts, justice in positions of authority and justice in positions of subservience. We might call these responsibility (justice of authority) and service (justice of subservience).
On the one hand, it is a goal of education to instruct people in the proper exercise of authority. At some point in our lives, all of us will have some kind of authority over others, be it the authority of an official over the citizens or the authority of a parent over a child. Education should have the goal of teaching us how to use that authority well, neither as tyrants nor as incompetents but as just administrators of the responsibility entrusted to us. (How this is taught will hopefully be the next post on education covering Plato's methods of teaching.)
On the other hand, it is a goal of education to instruct people in the proper obedience and service to authority. Even if we do from time to time rule, by far the majority of our lives will be spent following the rule of others. Parents, teachers, public officials, employers, and countless others will throughout our lives have the legitimate right to regulate our lives. How we react to that leadership is a reflection of the state of our souls. Of course as Americans we immediately want to ask the question "but what if the leadership is corrupt/untrustworthy/wicked?" But that is not what is in question. The issue at hand is not the nature of the leadership (that's a question for responsibility), it's the issue of how prepared we are to know our duties and to perform them in a way that benefits both our own souls and the life of the society as a whole.

At this point, we are bound to ask "what about skill? I mean, anyone can be taught to do what they're told. But what about math and science and literature and all those other things we fill the school day with now?" Plato would answer this question by reminding us that at this point we're still discussing the goals of education, whereas these various technical skills are at most means to those goals. (The example he uses is that of courage- you should never be courageous just for the sake of being courageous, you must be courageous for some greater end lest courage become simple foolishness.) It's a fine thing to teach technical skill (Plato encourages it!), but technical skill must never be elevated to where it becomes the goal of education. Such elevation corrupts the goal of education and turns the means by which people become "good" (which of course is where I as a Christian am going to take issue with Plato) into a factory for vice.

And once education is corrupted, putting it right becomes a "lifelong" group project. Which is Plato's analysis of our current situation. Education is wrong. We've built our entire education system around the pursuit of worldly wealth (Athens) or military glory (Sparta). In America of course it's a bit more complicated- it could be argued that we simply don't have a coherent goal within our education system (though I tend to prefer Tocqueville's argument- we educate with the goal of equalizing everybody, maybe I'll do a post on that later...).
Which in turn tells us what the first step in any discussion of the "crisis" of American education should be: figuring out just what in the heck we're trying to accomplish anyway. What are our goals as a nation for our educational system? Until we answer that, we can't hope solve our educational problems.

Plato on Selfishness

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The most serious vice innate in most men's souls is one for which everybody forgives himself and so never tries to find a way of escaping. You can get some idea of this vice from the saying that a man is in the nature of the case 'his own best friend,' and that it is perfectly proper for him to have to play this role. It is truer to say that the cause of each and every crime we commit is precisely this excessive love of ourselves, a love which blinds us to the faults of the beloved and makes us bad judges of goodness and beauty and justice, because we believe we should honour our own ego rather than the truth. Anyone with aspirations to greatness must admire not himself and his own possessions, but acts of justice, not only when they are his own, but especially when they happen to be done by someone else. It's because of this same vice of selfishness that stupid people are always convinced of their own shrewdness, which is why we think we know everything when we are almost totally ignorant, so that thanks to not leaving to others what we don't know how to handle, we inevitably come to grief when we try to tackle it ourselves. For these reasons, then, every man must steer clear of extreme love of himself, and be loyal to his superior instead; and he mustn't be put off by shame at the thought of abandoning that 'best friend.'
-Plato, The Laws, 731-732.