The best American schools have yet to remember why western civilization introduced “school” as the foundation of that civilization. Mostly, that is because the more we talk about school, the less we do it.
That seems to be the necessary conclusion to draw from a Liberty Fund retreat I attended during which we spent two full days in a moderately leisurely discussion of Plato’s Republic. The conference was a highlight of my year (which has been full of highlights) because of the enormous transformative and revelatory power of Plato’s book and because of the interaction with the ideas in that text with other people who read it closely and thought about what they said.
But it’s rather obvious why people don’t read it anymore, except to pass a test on western civ., thus innoculating themselves against everything Plato says.
If you’ve read five pages of it at some point in your life in a meditative way, you know what I mean. It’s hard going. We want the kids to know what it says so we create charts and graphs to summarize. Plato would be horrified.
He has a great deal to say about the rightly ordered soul, all of it insightful and very, very practical. For example, he describes the five types of soul, each characterized by what we would call a “core value” (he would simply call it a good) and thus appreciating a particular virtue that will help them get that value or good.
The best soul he calls the Aristocratic soul, because the Greek word aristoi means “the best.” His highest good is virtue itself.
But we never quite reach that level, as he admits, so in the real world we are more likely to come across the timocratic soul – the soul whose highest good is honor. Such a soul makes for the gentleman soldier, because he is not out for his own gain, but for the good of his community. His great temptation is to let honor slide into ambition.
After the timocratic soul comes the oligarchic. This is the man or woman who loves property or money above all. He saw how the timocratic lost money by pursuing honor, and fearing that loss himself he made money his chief value.
But the oligarch is a cheapskate. He hoards money, thus driving his son to distraction and bitterness. So the son grows up to spend as much money as possible, giving free reign to his appetites or passsions and place that freedom as his chief value. Unfortunately, as a matter of practical reality, without money you cannot be free. So the person whose soul values this unrestrained freedom above all else loses it just as the others had lost their chief value. He goes into debt.
Then comes the tyrant. When everybody has so much freedom, from among them a few will arise who can make promises and draw followers. As they gather round him, his power increases. And he loves that power. His chief good or core value is control, and with his followers, who need his power to maintain their soulless version of freedom, he is able to inflict that control. Only he has no friends and becomes the most miserable of all people.
In American education, we hang out almost entirely in the bottom three levels. We are obsessed with controls because, like those with too much freedom, we have become anxious. So our schools are run by arbitrary authorities whose claim to authority is that they were certified by others who established their own arbitrary authorities by gathering friends around them who acknowledged that they were entitled to certify them.
We remain obsessed with freedom, of course. And since we are a democracy, this is our most loudly proclaimed value. Some people even have it. But it tends to be a disordered freedom, not pointing to anything as an end.
Most of all, it seems to me that American education is viewed oligarchically. It’s a miser’s education. You are going to study these things so that you can get a job. We have no time to enjoy them, just learn them. If you don’t, China will beat us in the economic competition and then who knows what will follow. After all, we are the greatest country in the history of the world, so we have to be the biggest economy.
I’m happy to say that the tidiness of the foregoing is absurd. Everybody loves honor and virtue as well, so even in the darkest schools some young people and even teachers rise up and seek wisdon, virtue, and honor. But man do they have a lot to work against (which is another thing Plato describes in the Republic). Nobody has done more harm to American education than those who claim to love her, for they have done so “not wisely, but too well,” to quote Othello.
The problem may be here: what you believe about education depends on your ability to perceive reality. What you perceive will determine your goals. Your goals will determine your measures and standards.
What are the measures when your standards (the good you seek) are controls? Abstract numbers, like SAT scores.
What about when you seek freedom? Probably passionate expression, but this is a tough one.
What about when you seek property? Concrete numbers, like paychecks and college admissions.
But what about when you seek honor? Suddenly all has changed, hasn’t it. And if you can’t perceive what honor is and if you don’t value it more than money, freedom, and control, and if you don’t know who is so honorable that you would value it when they value you, what can you do about this? Most of all, if you don’t believe in actual, genuine honor that is innate to the human as the image of the Divine, what is there to honor anyway.
Our honor needs a guardian, and we have sent the guardians away because we don’t believe in honor. Mind you, we feel the need for it. That’s why we use mockery and flattery to get our ends. But we no longer honor honor. As Lewis put it: “We laugh at honor and are surprised to find traitors in our midst.”
In our schools we simply don’t honor the Divine Image in the students, so we are driven by easily marketed measures and standards that have value and are important but simply fall short of what we are. As a result, we dishonor the God who made the children too.
In this context, to speak of virtue seems a complete waste of time. What are the standards and measures for virtue? Is school the place where it should be pursued? How is it done? What is virtue.
To which I would simply respond: if you aren’t seeking to cultivate virtue you aren’t educating your children. You are dishonoring them and their Maker, you are bringing shame on your school in the eyes of the honorable, you are embracing the root of all evil as your chief value, you are producing a generation of lost souls unable to maneuver through the excess of freedom they have fallen into, and you are acting as and producing a tyrant.
You are, in short, blind, and should take a week or a month of delightful leisure during which you set aside all these lowly values that have enslaved you, open your eyes to honor and virtue, engage in a pleasant humanizing conversation with some truly wise people, and, well, repent of your miserable miserliness. Because the more actively you inflict your vision on education, the more damage you are doing.
There is no education without leisure for the simple reason that education is a leisure activity. It requires all of the other values: controls, freedom, money, and honor. But it’s only true end is virtue for the simple reason that only virtue is big enough to rightly order the other goods. The wise man knows where and how to get honor, money, freedom, and controls, and he knows how to use them. Because he is not driven by them as by an unruly mob. Instead he governs them.
Only such a person can successfully lead of a classical school. And only virtue can direct a school to the right curriculum, teaching modes, and objectives.
A versio of this article was originally posted in 2008 at the first CiRCE blog.