Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Plato on Education (II) How do we educate?



In the previous post on education in Plato's Laws, I suggested that the goal of education to instill virtue in children. Specifically, it is to teach them to be just in both leadership and service. In this post, I'll discuss how Plato suggests we go about doing this. How can virtue be taught?
First, according to Plato we have to realize that "education" is not a discrete period in a person's life, but rather a way of life itself. We shouldn't think of learning as something we do beginning in kindergarten and ending when we graduate from college. We should think of it as something we never cease doing. Plato drives this point home when he discusses two things: 1) pre-natal education; 2) the use of alcohol in education.
Wait, what?
That's right, according to Plato, education begins in the womb and may at some point involve appropriate amounts of liquor. In terms of education in the womb, Plato says:
All bodies find it helpful and invigorating to be shaken by movements and joltings of all kinds, whether the motion is due to their own efforts or they are carried on a vehicle or boat or horse or any other mode of conveyance. All this enables the body to assimilate its solid and liquid food, so that we grow healthy and handsome and strong into the bargain. [Therefore] A pregnant woman should go for walks, and when her child is born she should mould it like wax while it is still supple, and keep it well wrapped up for the first two years of its life. (The Laws, 789)
Which obviously isn't quite as bad as it initially sounded. This was essentially the ancient version of pregnant yoga. But we see here two important points. Education begins young and is inseparable from physical health. Plato refuses to let us compartmentalize: virtue belongs to the young and old, and includes the virtue of taking care of your body. The proper form of education, Plato says, "must show that it is capable of making our souls and bodies as fine and handsome as they can be." (The Laws, 788) To be truly educated it is not enough to train the mind, both body and soul must be conditioned in the school of virtue.

This is where the use of alcohol comes in. What do you do with a generation of people that has not been educated from the womb? For adults, it is simply too late to begin the proper work on the body and soul that should have begun before birth. What hope then is there? Fortunately, there exists a popular and pleasant drug which -when taken in the proper amounts (and Plato does mean proper amounts- he says that if a population can't drink temperately, the state should outlaw it all together)- reverts adults to the point where they have the openness and flexibility of children: alcohol.
We are looking for an inexpensive and [harmless] test we can apply to people [to determine which virtues and vices they possess], which will also give us a chance to train them, and this we have in the scrutiny we can make of them when they are relaxed over a drink. Can we point to a more suitable pleasure than this- provided some appropriate precautions are taken? (The Laws, 649)
Alcohol may loosen up adults so that they can be tested for the presence of virtue or vice, and then prepared for a better education. The point of this is not to make college students cheer for the Plato they never knew, it is rather to point out the kind of disposition necessary if we're going to fix a broken educational system. We must not be stubborn in clinging to traditions and forms that are already established, we must rather have the wonder and openness of children and the slightly buzzed. Likewise, as we are making changes to the system, we should do it (if at all possible) in a way that is pleasant to those affected. [Insert NCLB reforms comment here.]

This, however, is only the beginning of education in Plato. What does the actual process of raising someone in virtue look like?
First and most important is what goes on at home:
The state's general code of laws will never rest on a firm foundation as long as private life is badly regulated, and it's silly to expect otherwise. Realizing the truth of this, they [private citizens] may spontaneously adopt our recent suggestion as rules, and thereby achieve the happiness that results from running their households and their state on proper lines. (The Laws, 790)
No matter how good the laws of the state are, if people are living dissolute and unrestrained lives at home there can never be any hope of achieving true virtue. The work done by the school system will be undone the second the child returns to his parents (consequently in the Republic Plato had toyed with the notion of removing children from parents completely and instead having a community of wives and children). Notice that Plato does not extend the power of the state to force parents to carry out laws at home. Instead, he only hopes that responsible adults will recognize the importance of a virtuous upbringing and embrace the laws by choice. In the same way, we shouldn't expect the state to force parents to discipline their own children, make them do their homework, and study; while at the same time we should expect decent parents to do just  that of their own free will.

In terms of what goes on at school, education has two components: mental and physical.
The mental components of education should begin with stories and literature (for the very young), but only stories and literature that convey virtue. Crass comedy and tragedy should be censored, as should stories that encourage vice. As the children age and grow more capable, the curriculum should be expanded to include music, mathematics (which should start early), and astronomy (which keeps us pious and teaches us to search for heavenly truth). Specialized skills such as foreign languages come at the very end when the basics have been covered.
Physical training begins with games for the youngest children. These must be carefully crafted and regulated:
I maintain that no one in any state has really grasped that children's games affect  legislation so crucially as to determine whether the laws that are passed will survive or not. If you control the way children play, and the same children always play the same games under the same rules and in the same conditions, and get pleasure from the same toys, you'll find that the conventions of adult life too are left in peace without alteration. But in fact games are always being changed and constantly modified and new ones invented, and the younger generation never enthuses over the same thing for two days running. They have no permanent agreed standard of what is becoming or unbecoming either in deportment or their possessions in general; they worship anyone who is always introducing some novelty or doing something unconventional to shapes and colours and all that sort of thing. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that this fellow is the biggest menace that can ever afflict a state, because he quietly changes the character of the young by making them despise old things and value novelty. That kind of language and that kind of outlook is -again I say it- the biggest disaster any state can suffer. (The Laws, 797)
Early in our lives our attitude towards games shapes our attitude towards rules and laws, and so must be strictly watched and gently corrected. 
In later education, games are to be gradually replaced by sports, hunting, and military training. This last is the culmination of virtue, because it involves both personal development and defense of the community. As such, we find it the primary battleground between selfishness and virtue, especially when the state is at peace. When there is no war to fight, the temptation is (encouraged by greedy politicians) to slack off military training until such time as it is again needed. When the happens, citizens get lazy and corrupt leaders rise to power. Once in power, they further prevent military training so as to prevent any capable from withstanding their rule from rising against them. A state must be disciplined in its physical education both to keep up personal virtue and to maintain freedom from tyrannical and wicked leaders.


Clearly, Plato's view of education both overlaps and opposes ours, maybe in a future post I'll compare and contrast the two.

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