Plato on Education in the Republic: A Compendium of Bad Ideas

A continuation of the Education History Reading project, as begun here.

The weirdest thing: rereading the Republic, discovered that in general, I really  do enjoy reading classic philosophy more than just about any other kind of reading. Sure, sometimes history or science fiction hits the spot, but in general, it’s Plato, Aristotle and that crowd that does it for me. Weird, I know. And they still let me walk around loose. For now.

Plato’s Republic is a gold mine, a rabbit hole, an inspiration, a cause of despair all at the same time, especially if one is reading for education ideas. It contains some of Plato’s most inspired rhetoric and ideas while at the same time, by missing or dismissing some key premises, goes remarkably far off the rails. Let’s get to it:

First, it’s very difficult to not get sucked in to re-rereading, as there’s a feeling (with this and all truly great books) that you’ve just missed something important, something that you might be able to figure out with more attention(1). There’s no such thing as an exhaustive or definitive reading of the Republic. That said, with the implied caveat that I’ve no doubt missed all kinds of important stuff, we plow on. As much as possible, we will set aside the bulk of the dialogue in order to focus on education.

Plato wants all children to be educated toward virtue in as much as they have capacity for such education. The Truth sets you free from fear and controls base desires. He equates love of wisdom – philosophy – with love of knowledge. The truly wise man is always curious (about the right sorts of things). True philosophical knowledge is of being, not of becoming(2).

So far so good. The main conceit of the Republic is that Justice, the explicit subject of investigation, can be better seen in something large, like the State, rather than something small, like a man. By describing the just city, we can then see justice in the individual more clearly.

This is dubious. First, since justice has no size, there is no reason to believe that it will be any easier to understand justice in the state than justice in a citizen. Further, it may well be that the justice manifested in a city is the same as the justice manifested by the just man, but it may also be that, given the different duties and responsibilities, as well as the different temptations and failings, of men and cities the specific unifying thing-in-itself may well be rather more obscured by this approach than not.

But enough. Through Socrates, Plato clearly want to discuss government, thus the title of the dialogue. We want to see how Plato’s thinking has influenced future educators.

Here we will just catalog bad ideas we see echoed, often repeatedly, by education theorist through the ages. Note that, as mentioned previously, I’m never sure exactly how serious Plato via Socrates is – he says he he doesn’t know anything and is just a gadfly and midwife, so, taking him seriously on that point makes it incumbent on us to not take him entirely seriously when he starts throwing theories around. Right?(3).

A. Family is harmful to the education of children.

B. The state is the only competent authority that can make educational decisions.

C. The goals of education are state goals.

These ideas come up repeatedly; here is one passage that’s got them all:

They will begin by sending out into the country all the inhabitants of the city who are more than ten years old, and will take possession of their children, who will be unaffected by the habits of their parents; these they will train in their own habits and laws, I mean in the laws which we have given them: and in this way the State and constitution of which we were speaking will soonest and most easily attain happiness, and the nation which has such a constitution will gain most.

Book VI


That the state knows way better than parents how to educate their children is an ongoing theme in education theory since at least Lycurgus. Total state management of the schools and compulsory  attendance was preached by Luther (who, contrary to all of history, imagined that the Church, as personified in Luther, would bend the state to the purposes of God, rather than the other way around), Fichte, Mann, Barnard, and Dewey, and is in fact the unstated premise of virtually all parent-teacher conferences to this day.

Fichte, following Plato, wanted to completely and permanently remove children from the family and place them in school 24 x 7 x a decade or so under the management of state-trained experts; Mann and Barnard and Dewey were content to use the schools to drive a wedge between parent and child, especially the Catholic parent and child. The modern practice is to emphasize homework and extra-curricular activities so as to fill the lives of children completely, leaving as little time as possible for the building of relationships that do not spring from nor depend on school, specifically family and church and friendships springing therefrom – for their own good, of course. (4)

D. People must be categorized by the state, and trained accordingly.

E. The state is to breed people like animals for the purposes of the state.

And, since people are unlikely to like this arrangements, lie about it to them.

How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke — just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?

What sort of lie? he said.

Nothing new, I replied; only an old Phoenician tale of what has often occurred before now in other places (as the poets say, and have made the world believe), though not in our time, and I do not know whether such an event could ever happen again, or could now even be made probable, if it did.

How your words seem to hesitate on your lips!

True, I replied, but there is more coming; I have only told you half. Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honor; others he has made of silver, to be auxiliaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. But as all are of the same original stock, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son. And God proclaims as a first principle to the rulers, and above all else, that there is nothing which they should so anxiously guard, or of which they are to be such good guardians, as of the purity of the race. They should observe what elements mingle in their offspring; for if the son of a golden or silver parent has an admixture of brass and iron, then nature orders a transposition of ranks, and the eye of the ruler must not be pitiful toward the child because he has to descend in the scale and become a husbandman or artisan, just as there may be sons of artisans who having an admixture of gold or silver in them are raised to honor, and become guardians or auxiliaries. For an oracle says that when a man of brass or iron guards the State, it will be destroyed. Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?

Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons’ sons, and posterity after them.

Book III


Woodrow Wilson, who was merely repeating the accepted wisdom of the education establishment of the time (he was, after all, president of Princeton before he was President of the US) told the New York City School Teachers Association in 1909:

We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

Wilson’s view was the view of all education leaders then and remains so down to today. The herd of the liberally educated and those fitted for specific manual tasks covers what Plato would call the Silver and Iron souled worker bees. Where are the Gold-souled leaders in this picture? The next book I’m reading now – Parish Schools, will have notes up on it ASAP – mentions that the general enthusiasm for compulsory state schooling among established American Protestants in the mid-nineteenth century differed depending on their social status: the rich thought it a splendid idea, but had no intention (or even thought) that their children would go to them. Nope, factory schooling is not for the Gold souled guardians of the state, but for the little people – not for the controllers, but for the controlled. None of our elected officials, who without exception support compulsory state schooling, send their kids to DC public schools. (5)

Plato recognized that his ideal state would not be able to pull this off by telling the truth. He was perfectly fine with lying about it, if it got the job done. This, perhaps, is the defining characteristic of all state-sponsored education programs through the ages: they are not set up to do what those who are made to attend them are told they were set up to do.


  1. Then you have to go learn Greek, as the small pile of insufficiently thumbed Greek books to my immediate left dolefully remind me…
  2. This is the exact opposite of what Hegel says, btw. The God of Plato is pure being; the Spirit of Hegel is a mixture of being and not being that is Becoming. Plato teaches us to seek after the Unchanging Divine, of which is the only true knowledge; Hegel mocking dismisses this idea (and the ‘propositional logic’ that supports it) in favor of an ever-unfolding, ever-changing Spirit in History. The true philosopher understands but, following Hegel’s exposition in Science of Logic, he cannot explain (with what? Logic? Speculative reason by definition is not bound by logic) – the speculative philosopher tells you his story, you either get it, and are enlightened, or you don’t, and you are benighted.
  3. A couple places in the various Dialogues, including once in the Republic, Socrates says something like “that is so beautiful I’m sure something like it is true.” Which is, of course, saying the thing as described *isn’t* true…
  4. This has been a sore spot over the years in my discussions about education with friends and acquaintances. A key symptom of the Stockholm Syndrome that is the defining characteristic of the properly educated is that they cannot imagine that those who guide the schools don’t have their best interests at heart. Teachers – well, some of them at least – are so *nice* and dedicated!
  5. Our political leaders send them to places like Sidwell Friends School, for example. Since 1956, even non-whites could attend. They have the best school lunch program in the country!

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

7 thoughts on “Plato on Education in the Republic: A Compendium of Bad Ideas”

  1. This has been a sore spot over the years in my discussions about education with friends and acquaintances. A key symptom of the Stockholm Syndrome that is the defining characteristic of the properly educated is that they cannot imagine that those who guide the schools don’t have their best interests at heart. Teachers – well, some of them at least – are so *nice* and dedicated!

    This is really where a familiarity with the field helps you.

    My uncle is a teacher (and hates it, but that’s another story). My mom was a teacher. I made it far enough, as I’ve said before, in college to get to the observation level of teaching before getting disillusioned with the field and leaving.

    But one thing that struck me as absolutely true is that everybody in my class, and my professor, and all of the teachers we students observed with, and at minimum the friendly administrators I interacted with, were all concerned about the welfare of the students.

    They’re hampered by a broken system, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not trying.

    You have it exactly backward. Sure, there are some Trunchbulls out there, but the…well, not Miss Honey’s, but the people who actually care outnumber them by a large amount.

    Can I prove it? No, but then very little is actually provable. I do think it’s true, though.

    You’re right, though, on the most important point: The system is broken.

    1. I come from a family of teachers, too – 3 of my sisters, one of my brothers, both father- and mother-in-laws, and a sister in law. Not to mention a couple of my best friends from college as well as a couple of my wife’s best friends. All of them care or cared about their students – that’s the point: people judge the system as well-intentioned because most of the teachers they personally know are well-intentioned.

      That said, I think many teachers come to be complicit to a greater or lesser degree once they see how far the actual actions of the school diverge from any rational idea of what is good for the student. I’m sure your relatives could tell stories! I do think it is true, inescapably true, that the process one has to go through to get a credential is meant to filter out troublemakers as much as possible: basically, the prospective teacher is made to deal with all sorts of arbitrary nonsense – bullying, really – before they are allowed in the classroom, so that they will do as they are told once they get into the classroom, instead of making a fuss over how arbitrary and bullying what they make the kids do on a day-to-day basis really is.

      One example, a relatively minor one: making kids raise their hands in front of everybody in order to get permission go to the bathroom. This is deemed necessary, because it is assumed that kids will abuse the ‘privilege’ of relieving themselves if they can go anytime they feel the need. You know, like everybody else in the universe. That this doesn’t trigger a ‘wait a second -WTF?!?’ response speaks volumes. We rationalize: well, *my* kids don’t need this level of micromanagement via humiliation to learn, but those *other* kids are just unmanageable! Why this is so is a question we just don’t ask.

      A bigger abuse: grouping kids not by what they know and what they need to learn, but by age. Doing this ensures that most of every day is wasted by most every kid in the class. This is done in the name of ‘efficiency’. Making a kid sit there when he already knows what is being taught is bullying, treating him as less than human, and conditioning him to follow somebody’s unchallengable and arbitrary rules – teaching him, in effect, to turn off his mind to merely survive. After a dozen years of this, that kid gets to vote.

      1. To be clear, I agree with basically your whole comment. I’m just saying…I observed at, statistically, one of the worst schools in the country. I’m not insulting the school, I’m referring to objective test scores and GPA’s and dropout rates and all that jazz. This school I observed at? In the bottom 30.

        The first thing my observation teacher told me when I came into her room – and keep in mind, this is not an overly large woman, and she said this with absolute, dead seriousness – “Do not show weakness. They will eat you alive.”

        I think the idea of raising your hand to use the bathroom, or going up to a teacher, does make sense for the early grades, actually. By the time you reach high school…

        I’m trying to find a way to balance on the cutting edge of not making excuses and getting my impressions across accurately. The teacher I observed with was GOOD – and for that matter, to their credit, when I did my test lesson the students were well-meaning enough to be on their best behavior so I didn’t get an F on that assignment. But…they were in 10th grade, and were at a 6th grade reading level. My original lesson was at an 8th grade reading level; I was chastised for making it too hard. And they were right. It was.

        But the thing is…if students were just allowed to leave, well, they’d leave. Probably get expelled eventually. And teachers don’t want that – nobody does.

        The schools are inherently flawed in design. But I still find it hard to think that the teachers just don’t care. That doesn’t jive with my experiences at all. They just don’t know what to do.

        And, yes, they’re partially responsible just for being teachers in the first place, but I’m not sure if that’s all you meant.

      2. I do appreciate what you are saying. I’m not blaming teachers for the sorry state of things, and I do recognize that most teachers really want to help and really do care about the kids. My reason for harping on teachers’ role in all this is more a reaction to the usual practice of treating them as secular saints, then using their good intentions as proof that the system *as a whole* has good intentions.

        The situation is morally complex. For another example, see this essay ( by Dr. Boli about the problems antebellum Southerners faced if they wanted to free their slaves. Often, keeping their slaves and trying to treat them well was by far the best thing they could do – all other options were worse *for the slaves*! We can be all kinds of sympathetic to teachers (and slaveholders!) without thinking factory schooling (or slaveholding!) is a good thing.

        So please don’t think I hold any particular dislike of teachers, or blame them to any large extent for the state of things. Mostly, they are well-intentioned people caught up in a situation they can’t control.

        As far as the practical necessity for the humiliating steps used in school, we should consider the relationship of cause and effect: if you can find an out (like going to the bathroom just to escape) to get out of a humiliating and controlling situation, why not take it?

      3. Oh yeah, I wasn’t clear, but I think you’re right that high schoolers, perhaps middle schoolers, should be able to use the bathroom however they please. I just think it makes sense to ask for the younger grades, if for no other reason that if they take too long you can at least take a look at where they said they were going.

        I agree with you. The system is broken – actually, that’s not even right. It’s inherently flawed. That’s why I left. It was disillusioning to see how little you could do with the constraints given to you – and even the broadest constraints are incredibly limiting.

        Dr. Boli’s article is excellent, by the way.

  2. Sidwell Friends School. Only $37750 per year. Sounds like gold souls get educated here. Saw Bill Nye as a 1973 graduate. Thanks for your work on this topic.

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