Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Great Tradition: Plato

The first section in The Great Tradition is a collection of excerpts from several of Plato's works: The Republic, and Laws.

I would like to respond to the excerpt from "Laws," and particularly to the excerpt from Book VII.

This excerpt discusses education. More specifically, it deals with what is appropriate to teach to young men, in order for them to be complete and well rounded. There is some good discussion about the harmful influences of new things on the minds of young people, and I agree with it in a sense.

I do not think that students should not be taught new things (here, I'm speaking because of my intimate experience with English of things like postmodernism and new literary critical theories), but rather that they should be taught those new things, but only after having been armed with the tools of a critical thinker and learner. So, for instance, students, and especially those interested in literature, should read Derrida, and understand him, for Differance is a seminal work on literary theory. But they should only read Derrida after they have had their compasses correctly attuned by significant time spent with the Bible (in particular), and the "great works" (in general). Why? Because then they will have the tools to look at any text or philosophy or worldview, and " testing [they] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).

However, in setting up intensive Bible and great works study as a prerequisite to other ideas, I am still agreeing with Plato. Children should not be sent to the postmodern wolves without being armed by the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:16-17). This sets limits upon what they learn until a certain age. While I plan to mention different ideas of literary theory in the final month of my junior and senior class (Philosophy and Literature), I will not burden the minds of the seventh grade students with the idea that every truth reflects only a degree of a truth behind it, and so on, so that "Truth" is not, but is eternally referential. They do not yet posses the skills to separate those thoughts as literary theories from those thoughts as a worldview.

Something that I take issue with is the emphasis that Plato places on the role of the government in education. Unless I am mistaken, which is a much greater possibility than I would like to think, Plato seems to think that the "director of education" should be the same person as the "guardian of the law," (page 28 in TGT) which seems to me to be a position of government. Unless by that phrase he means that these men are only the "keepers of the flame," so to speak, and that they are the safeguards of tradition.

The disquieting thing about this position is that this person (the director of education) not only decides what is taught, but also who teaches, and based on his interpretation of how well they know the things to be taught. A quote is in order.

He cannot do better than advise the teachers to teach the young these words and any which are of a like nature, if he should happen to find them, either in poetry or prose, or if he come across unwritten discourses akin to ours, he should certainly preserve them, and commit them to writing. And, first of all, he shall constrain the teachers themselves to learn and approve them, and any of them who will not, shall not be employed by him, but those whom he finds agreeing in his judgment, he shall make use of and shall commit to them the instruction and education of youth. (page 28 in TGT)

Now, I am a recovering libertarian/Christian anarchist, but I fail to see how this fits in with a conservative philosophy of education. I am aware that the times were different, and the structure of Athenian government and it's interaction with religion is different than American government. But even if America were a Christian theocracy, I would have serious issues with the government establishing what is to be taught, and who is to teach it. Would any conservative thinkers disagree with that? Or is this a case of a too-different milieu to transfer it to today's world?

In any case, I enjoyed these readings. I had read the selections from Republic before, but Laws was new to me.

The next post will be on Xenophon, who was completely new to me. I greatly enjoyed his depiction of Socrates and his method of discourse.
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