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.

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