I recall that in Plato’s Republic Socrates recommends that in the ideal society precocious young boys and girls be taken from their parents at a very early age and raised by the state until they reach their mid-thirties at which point they will enter public service and eventually be qualified to rule. The idea is that the state will raise the children into middle age, educate them and prepare them for kingship. The notion is radical, not only because it involves taking children from their parents at an early age, but also because it involves both boys and girls. Though he may have taken his lead from Pythagoras who welcomed women into his school in Italy, Plato was probably the first feminist: he thought women should be allowed to rule the Republic along with the men.
Whenever I taught this book, however, at least one student could be counted on to raise the following objection: by taking the children from their parents and raising them apart, when the time comes to rule they will be naive and unprepared for the “real world” where there is strife and struggle. The philosopher kings, as Plato liked to call them, would be unprepared for the hurly-burly of the real world. Aristotle agreed with my students; he was relentless in his criticism of Plato’s notion of philosopher kings and this is a large part of the reason: they need real-world experience and what Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” Philosophers who have been raised apart from the people in the political state would not be able to function effectively.
This is a telling criticism and accords with common sense. And yet isn’t this precisely what we are doing in our schools when we continually stroke the kids and tell therm they are wonderful? Granted, the state hasn’t taken the children from their parents, though one might want to argue that electronic toys have in effect done precisely that. In any event, even though the public schools are not set apart and the kids who attend those schools are not selected for their precociousness, they still are made to feel as though they are potential philosopher kings — without the philosophy.
I have blogged about this absurd situation previously, but it remains the case that parents and teachers need to keep fixed in their minds that they are preparing kids for the real world where there is failure and disappointment and things don’t always work out the way we had hoped. The fundamental flaw in the “self-esteem” movement that has gripped this country is that it turns out young adults who have a deep-seated sense of entitlement and who are not prepared for the shock that the real world of marriage and work have in store for them. It is ironic that in the interest of doing the right thing by our kids in trying to raise their self-esteem we may well be robbing them of the equipment they require to be successful in the work-a-day world.