“But how, exactly, will they be reared and educated by us? And does our considering this contribute anything to our goal of discerning that for the sake of which we are considering all these things – in what way justice and injustice come into being in a city.”
— Plato, The Republic
Heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call, I can’t take it y’all, I can feel the city breathin’, Chest heavin’, against the flesh of the evening, Sigh before we die like the last train leaving.
—Black Star, Respiration
What characterizes the ideal city – and the cities in which we live? How accurately does the health of a city reflect the quality of its plan for educating its youngest citizens? And does the push towards greater school choice get us closer to, or farther from, that ideal?
I’ve been thinking about those questions a lot since reading a column by George Will in last weekend’s Washington Post. In it he references two U.S. Supreme Court opinions in which the Court affirmed the constitutional right of parents “to direct the … education of children under their control.” As a student of the 14th Amendment, I sought the opinions out. What struck me had less to do with the legal arguments, however, and more to do with an excerpt in one of the opinions from Plato’s Republic, arguably the most famous political work of all time, and a work squarely concerned with the role a city – and, by extension, its education system – must play in helping all people develop their fullest potential.
The Republic is about decay as much as it is about rebirth. Socrates is visiting Athens during a period of decline (Plato, it’s worth noting, is not exactly a fan of democracy). While there, Socrates falls into conversation with a number of other men, who then co-construct a vision of the ideal city, and, by extension, the ideal state of humanity.
If you’ve never read The Republic (I hadn’t until this week), you may be surprised by how radical the vision really is. To wit, the section in which he explains the structure of schooling is the one Justice James McReynolds chose to cite in his 1923 opinion for Meyer v. Nebraska:
“That the wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent. … The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.”
“The desire of the Legislature to foster a homogeneous people with American ideals prepared readily to understand current discussions of civic matters is easy to appreciate,” McReynolds wrote, referencing a 1919 law that had outlawed the teaching of any subject to any person in any language other than English. “But the means adopted, we think, exceed the limitations upon the power of the state and conflict with [the] rights” of both teachers and parents.
Fair enough. After all, such a law seems to be a clear case of legislative overreach. But excepting its own forms of overreach (raise your hands, for example, if you’re willing to give up your children at birth so they can be raised in a common pen, or if you believe America should be recast as a communist country), in what ways can The Republic help illuminate the core opportunities – and pitfalls – of the greater push towards school choice?
On one level, The Republic seems to suggest that the very notion of choice is what ultimately undoes a community. “Have we any greater evil for a city,” says Socrates, “than what splits it and makes it many instead of one? Or a greater good than what binds it together and makes it one?” Seen in this light, the increasing balkanization of public education is merely the latest vehicle for pitting the motivations and self-interests of individuals and families against each other. Socrates seems to confirm this notion later, when he suggests that “in founding the city we are not looking for the exceptional happiness of any one group among us but, as far as possible, that of the city as a whole.”
OK, so choice bad, no choice good. Right?
Not so fast. Although Plato would clearly take issue with the individualistic nature of our modern society, and perhaps too with our decision to make public education even more heterogeneous than it was before, he also believes that the highest calling of each person is to be “a seeker and student of that study by which he might be able to learn and find out who will give him the capacity and the knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life, and so everywhere and always to choose the better from among those that are possible. . . From all this he will be able to draw a conclusion and choose – in looking off toward the nature of the soul – between the worse and the better life, calling worse the one that leads it toward becoming more unjust, and better the one that leads it to becoming juster. He will let everything else go. For we have seen that this is the most important choice for him in life and death.”
When I look at the current landscape of school choice in DC (a landscape I’ll be exploring in great detail this year as I follow the fortunes of three area schools – district, charter and private), I wonder how we can learn from Plato’s caution and heed his advice. Will greater school choice be a means toward helping more children and families “choose between the worse and the better life,” while also furthering our capacity as a city to live “free from faction”? Is this even possible? Or is our shared fidelity to the twin pillars of democracy and capitalism such that a vision of greater equity and spiritual fulfillment is merely illusory, and as misleading as the shadows of the puppets that dance on the wall of Plato’s allegorical cave?
In part, Plato’s allegory is a way for Socrates to make another key point: “education is not what the professions of certain men assert it to be. They presumably assert that they put into the soul knowledge that isn’t in it, as though they were putting sight into blind eyes.”
Plato’s larger point here is that we delude ourselves into thinking we understand the nature of things, when in fact all we are doing is constructing a false sense of the world and calling it real (as theoretical physicist David Bohm once said, “Thought makes the world and then says, ‘I didn’t do it.’”). For those of us trying to improve schools, I think the analogy is also an appropriate condemnation of the current system of schooling we have – a system that was designed to meet the needs of the Industrial Age that was, not the Democratic Age that will be.
So, now that the school choice genie has been released from the bottle, I ask you: In what ways can it engender more schools capable of giving more people the skills and self-confidence they need to become active, visible contributors to the public good – a public good that, amidst the din of the ongoing battle between our intermixed democratic and capitalistic ideals, still seeks to fulfill our founding spirit of E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one?