Protecting The Young

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.

What Are Teachers Worth?

A couple of days ago mindfulstew posted an excellent blog advocating a starting salary for teachers at $100,000. As expected it generated considerable heat and a good deal of light. I felt compelled to comment of course. But then it occurred to me I had already addressed the topic on June 5th in a blog I called “Pay The Piper.” So in order to support “stew’s” blog I am re-posting it here. I do think $100,000 a bit high, but I think $50,000 is a reasonable starting salary when states routinely start teachers out at half that much. Surely we must start paying our teachers what they are worth if we are to pull our educational system out of the gutter where it lies ignored and pathetic. My claim is that our democratic system hangs in the balance.  In that spirit, here goes my re-post:

When I first started college teaching back in the Dark Ages I taught logic at the University of Rhode Island. One of my tasks was to go from Kingston to Providence once a week to teach an adult extension course in logic to hard-working adults who were trying to get a college degree after work. On the way I picked up one of the students who was the Chief of the Jamestown Police and we had some interesting talks driving to Providence and back. He complained a number of times about the format of the New England Town Meetings where citizens met on a fairly regular basis and discussed and voted on the pressing issues of the day. His frustration usually centered around the fact that the people wanted such things as improved police and fire protection but they didn’t want to raise their taxes. In a word, they wanted to hear the tune the piper played, but they didn’t want to pay him.

We still do that on both a state and a national scale, don’t we? We want something for nothing: we want a good educational system but we don’t want to have to pay for it. In Wisconsin recently the citizens of that great state attempted to break up public employee unions on the grounds that it will save them tax money and at the same time they are outspoken in their criticism of the job the public employees do — especially the teachers. Give me a break! Are we really that stupid?

I think it was Churchill who said Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others. I gather that he was poking gentle fun at the folks who run around like the creatures in the caucus race in Wonderland trying to figure out how to make things work; Churchill knew that the process, while flawed, is the best humans have come up with. Plato preferred philosopher Kings, but there aren’t many of them around these days. And it’s not clear philosophers would make very good kings anyway!

But it is the case that a well-educated citizenry is of central importance to any democratic system. If the people are not well informed, how can they make intelligent choices? George Eliot dealt with this question in her brilliant novel Felix Holt, Radical at a time when England was struggling with the issue of extending suffrage. How can we expect people who know very little about the world around them, who are daily forced to work with their hands instead of their heads, to make informed decisions? Felix wrestles with this question throughout the novel, and it is a very important question. Our founding fathers wrestled with it as well and I am not sure we have answered it yet.

We had better figure out how to make it work, however, or future historians will conclude that our democracy was a failed experiment. Ours is not a pure democracy, of course, but it requires enlightened, well-educated legislators and leaders — and a citizenry educated well enough to separate the fraud from the friend. As stated, in any democracy the entire experiment hinges on an educated citizenry. Thomas Jefferson knew this, of course, which is why he founded the University of Virginia. If people are unwilling to spend money to have their young well enough educated to become informed voters in a democratic nation then the experiment will indeed have failed. We really must pay the piper.