Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Plato's Attempt to Control Early Education

In Book II of Plato's Republic, Socrates begins to discuss the education of young children. He doesn't want children exposed to bad stories, but wants them to be exposed only to good stories. Students are frequently outraged at this "censorship."

The line that Socrates wants to draw seems to be that he doesn't want young children exposed to stories that teach falsehoods. Instead he wants them exposed to what is true.

The particular way this plays out is that he wants to reject false stories about the gods: stories that portray them as petty and immoral, hating each other and treating each other badly. Instead, he wants the stories about the gods to be stories that portray the gods as good.

A student in class today objected that this was one-sided: to only want to teach goodness. At some point, young people need to be exposed to the reality of problems and badness in the world.

But goodness and truth are so tightly-aligned in ancient Greek thought that my mind made a sideways shift and I wondered if this student's objection might sound to Socrates like someone saying, "But teaching only about truth is so one-sided! If education is to be balanced and fair, we should give equal time to teaching falsity as well!"

That, of course, was not what my student intended to say at all. But our contemporary political world seems at times to champion such a view!

More specifically, Socrates thought that it was bad for young children to hear stories about badness prevailing. I agree with my student's concern that people at some stage need to face the reality that bad things can happen. But how we tell those stories does matter, I think. Do we tell these stories in ways that disillusion and intimidate? Or do we tell these stories in ways intended to inspire and empower people to triumph over life's adversity?

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