Wednesday, 19 August 2009

A More Platonic Education?

Some of Plato's ideas were - to be frank - a touch crazy, but he did say some things about education that are worth remembering.

One concerns the stories that kids ought to grow up with. In Book Two of the Republic Plato says that education should begin with stories. He considers the stories that kids are being told and he is concerned. It is 380BC and kids are being told stories about gods fighting each other, of Cronos being punished by his son, of Hera being chained by her son, of Hepaestus being hurled from heaven by his father. No, stories like these should not be told to the young, who must only hear what will "dispose them to virtue."

What would Plato say now? Doubtless in most families there is a short period of Platonic protection with carefully chosen bedtime reading, but all too quickly kids come under the influence of a culture for which "virtue" is a word from a dead language. The real concern, of course, is not to cultivate children - to give them the most appropriate sentimental education but to make money from them. We could criticize Plato's insistence that philosophers ought to plan the education of children, but surely the decision to hand the process over to businessmen is all the more dubious.

There is a big difference, though, between Greece in the fourth century BC and our situation today. For Plato it would have been a fairly simple matter to control what young people were exposed to. The stories were not lying around waiting to be read. For children to hear them a real flesh-and-blood adult had to consent to tell them. The culture was still largely an oral culture. How very different things are now that at the flick of a switch kids have access to the worst being peddled by the merchants of our (anti)culture.

In Book Three of the Republic Plato goes on to consider the way children imitate. He imagines two different kinds of story-teller. One is moderate. When narrating the words and actions of a good man he will not be ashamed of imitation to add colour to the story, but when "the good man is overcome by disease or sexual passion or by drunkenness or some other misfortune" he will tell the story plainly, without imitation. By contrast, a less moderate story teller will imitate everything to arouse the audience as much as possible and the performance will have very little straight narrative. Plato says that if a poet of the latter type wanted to enter the city and tell his stories, he would be sent away.

Book Six has some of the most interesting ideas. Despite his apparent authoritarianism, Plato insists that nothing will be achieved if lessons are made compulsory. "No free man must learn anything under complusion like a slave...Nothing learned under compulsion stays in the mind." And education must begin in play. Although we have learned the lesson about play, we are still a long way off from seeing the wisdom in the rejection of compulsion.

But Plato is not against compulsion in all things, just in the education of the mind. He thinks that there must be a period of physical education - perhaps two or three years - and that will be compulsory. Here he is not thinking of work in the fields but of the athletic training for leaders who will also be able warriors.

Even more controversial is Plato's comment about war. "Boys [are] to be led even into war, as observers on horseback and, wherever it is safe to do so, they should be brought close and taste blood..." How very different this would be from the pseudo-experience offered by virtual warfare.

The timeline for Platonic education is striking. The basic moral, mental and physical training is meant to end at the age of 20. For the more able a period of secondary education then begins. Plato is rather sketchy about the content of this but he insists that people will not be ready for what he is really aiming at - a training in the philosophical arts of argumentation - until they are thirty. The political life of the city (today's nation) rests on sound argumentation, but no one under thirty can be expected to argue in a reasonable way. "When youths get their first taste of reasoned discourse they take it as a game and always use it to contradict. They imitate those who cross-examined them and themselves cross-examine others, rejoicing like puppies to drag along and tear to bits in argument whoever is near them." So what Plato calls a training in dialectic only begins at the age of 30 and is to continue for another five years.

At the age of 35 graduates are to enter political life, where they are expected to serve (albeit reluctantly because they have come to love education and the life of the mind above all other things but they recognise they have a duty to perform) - and serve for 15 years. This, though, is also education - gaining experience of the world - and for Plato the total process of education cannot be considered to be finished until the end of this period, at roughly the age of 50. And then? They are ready to start work, albeit sporadically. "They will spend much of their time with philosophy, but, when their turn comes, they must each labour and rule in public affairs." Finally, after having done their duty in helping to rule and educate "they will depart to the islands of the blessed."