Leisure, Plato’s Republic, and American Education

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 just 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.

So I go to James Daniels words about leisure in his previous post and even more to Steve Elliott’s plaintive reply and I ponder. Does Plato have a solution? And, in fact, I believe he does. His solution is the rightly ordered soul, which is the precondition for any rightly ordered society (family, school, band, city, state, empire).

He has a great deal to say about that 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.

Plato on The Causes of the Economic Decline

What’s happening in the economy? I believe we are seeing the unravelling of an artificial economy that is being filtered down to the real economy that underlies it. Nobody knows where the real economy is, so there is no way to know how much farther the chaos has to go.

What do I mean by the real economy vs. the artificial economy? The real economy is predicated on real values – actual assets that underlie wealth. The artificial economy is a confidence game. It takes the core economic reality, that the value of an object is determined by how others perceive it, and separate the two items.

Perception is all there is to valuation. I believe it was FDR who took the dollar off the gold standard (might have been Nixon) and when he did so, one of his cabinet members, so I have heard, called it the end of western civilization. Interesting statement. From that point forward the connection of the dollar to economic reality became increasingly tenuous. It didn’t have a hard, valued, tangible asset that people understood to keep it stable. All it had was the brains of the financial world.

The great seduction of this era is the rapid movement of wealth. The faster it can move, the more you can make and the more people can make it. Now wealth is only a blip on a computer screen. But the underlying assets of the wealth became increasingly harder to find.

The kicker lies in the fact that people make more money moving wealth than creating it. The lumberjack and carpenter make much less on the sale of furniture than the retailer. The gold miner rarely makes what the banker makes. So the temptation is always to take a job moving money around.

On Wall Street that led to every manner of vehicle for moving computer digits from one computer to another and taking a fee for doing so. This is a caricature, but it points to the tendency and to the fact that nobody knows the underlying real value of our economy.

It all seems to have unravelled in the mortgage industry, where mortgages were bought and sold so many times, multiplying fees in so many ways, that nobody can find the value of the underlying asset. Perhaps our government just made the deal of the century, buying an awful lot of really cheap mortgages. Perhaps the houses will end up being worth much more than the government is paying for them. We’ll see. But right now, nobody knows.

Plato spoke in the Republic of the City at Fever Pitch. he said that when people “give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth…” they have made a choice that moves the “causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public.” St. Paul warned Timothy that the love of money is the root of every kind of evil.

Perhaps that is because the love of money makes perception king and puts the world in the hands of the manipulators of words. Perhaps it is because the love of money breaks the connection between the human being and reality.

Only a farm can keep us rooted.

Good solutions II

A good solution accepts also the limitations of discipline. Agricultural problems should receive solutions that are agricultural, not technological or economic.

This second of 14 entries listing Berry’s good solutions that allow for “solving for pattern” probably provokes controversy. We want to solve every problem using technology or economics. But if the problem is pedagogical (i.e. having to do with teaching), then to solve it technologically isn’t possible. The problem in America’s schools is not that we don’t have the means to get information into children’s hands. It is that we don’t know the purpose of education. And we don’t know the purpose of education because we don’t know what a human being is. Until we figure that out, no amount of technology can solve our education problems.

I would recommend a close reading of the Protagoras and The Gorgias and a little more critical approach to the way Nietzsche intimidates the half-educated that govern our philosophy departments and from them our school administration. Our half-baked nihilism is neither necessary nor a good idea. And it isn’t very compelling to people who can read The Bully Anti-philosopher with a spine.