What Plato Would Think of School Choice

“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?

Categories: Democracy, Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Posted September 2, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s great how you’ve put your finger on some of the tensions in the Republic, for instance, between Plato’s rigidly hierarchical plan for society, on the one hand, and on the other hand, his striking description of learning and teaching, which offers the individual freedom to bring him or herself into the light, as he would have it in the allegory of the cave. I find it astonishing that a brief vignette, a few pages at most, can be so powerful.

    I think along the lines of what you’re saying is the idea that there be no special political class.—well, the guardians are a special political class, right? No, because Plato thinks that the result of their training will be that they are devoted to justice, knowledge, and the good of the state, with no sense of personal gain or allegiance to any one guild, locale, family, or ideology. We have to be prepared to educate everyone so that, aided by whatever skills they have for governing, they are most essentially committed to creating a just society, something that everyone in principle has the potential to understand and work toward.

    The classical concept of virtue that Plato is working with is much different than the conception we have today that values service to others and generosity. It’s more about striving for excellence within the constraints of justice, which carries over from the individual to the city and vice-versa.

  2. Andrew
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Great piece. There’s a lot to work with from “The Republic.” I wish it were required reading for anyone who has intentions of reforming education. Several things come to mind for me as I read your piece, Sam, but I’ll focus my comment here on one — I am fascinated by the conversation that praises the Lycurgian training regimen in Sparta (although it isn’t named as such by Plato) for its uniformity and effectiveness. Things like poetry and independent thinking are not cultivated in such a society, but everyone meets the standards (or they die!). The uniformity in such societies is impressive — everyone has the same values, gets the same education/training, supports the same ideals. There’s an obvious downside to such uniformity, and the men in the dialogue acknowledge it, weighing the absence of such things as creativity against the benefit of a common mindset of civic duty. Sparta’s agrarian economy and dependence on slaves made such devotion to single-mindedness possible. I think what Socrates and Plato are suggesting is that properly educating a population in economic climate such as ours (and Athens’ at the time) is really complicated because so much has to be considered and properly valued. Just when we think what we’re doing is right someone might reveal that the truth as we know it really is another shadow on the wall.

    What upsets me the most about the state of our testing-based trends in education is that things like creativity and civic awareness are not valued. It seems that in order for our way of life to continue we will need to be able to creatively approach the problems that vex us, and we’ll need some common civic value in order to stay connected to one another. Money and religion in our country right now (and perhaps forever) are tragically divisive. There has to be something else, and how to instill it may take innovation not yet imagined. I haven’t seen a standards-based curriculum in our education models that is preparing young people for these issues.

    What’s the solution? Who knows, but sustained conversation, such as the one modeled in the dialogue, must be a cornerstone.

  3. Posted September 5, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Greetings from China! And thanks to you both, Adam and Andrew, for diving in with me — apparently you’ve both been swimming in this particular pool for longer than I have. (And meanwhile Andrew — we need to get together when I get back stateside). Agreed with both of your additional observations — and yes, who knows what the solution is. I guess what struck me most in that opening quote I use is Plato’s discussion of justice, and “in what way justice and injustice come into being in a city.” Like you, Andrew, I can’t understand why so many well-intentioned people are doubling down on a test-driven ed system in the name of justice, when it’s so clear that there’s a reason people like Obama choose schools like Sidwell. And I realize it isn’t as easy as some progressives claim it to be — there are additional factors that complicate the equation in schools that truly reflect the community in its largest sense (and what are private schools doing beyond, primarily it seems, controlling for the variable of poverty and all it may — or is perceived to — introduce and induce?!), but still, c’mon people, we can do better than this! But only if we take the twin levers of teacher quality and better assessments and start craft truly innovative ideas. I really do think the starting point is as simple as the three questions I outlined in my TED talk — and from there the fun begins. But we’re not even at the starting gate!

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