Friday, April 1, 2011

Education and its Roots in Antiquity III – Reaction to the Sophists

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis – a logical approach usually attributed (erroneously) to the philosopher Hegel. It’s really the dialectic approach of the Greeks, where the goal is to arrive at a new truth through discussion - one point of view versus another point of view, back and forth, until a consensus is reached. This is the opposite of a debate where the opponents hold a position for the entire exercise.

In our first two articles about education in antiquity, we moved from the early aristocratic model, when the first schools appeared, to the time of the Sophists, when the Greek educational system exploded in many new directions. I consider the Sophists the thesis part of the dialectic – the first pillar of a “modern” educational system.

Now we come to the opposing force (antithesis) mounted against the Sophists – the Socratics and then Plato. The Socratics, of course, are defined by the man Socrates who rose up in opposition to the slick commercial veneer of the Sophists.

We see Socrates first as the guardian of the old aristocratic position, attacking the Sophist attraction to political virtue as opposed to ethical virtue. To him, they risk amoralism by their misuse of the word virtue. Education, to Socrates, is the process of obtaining moral virtue as the highest goal of man. Not the tradesmen he saw in the Sophists, Socrates harked back to the old “educator as tutor” who helped the student discover the truth, like one would unlock a secret box.

Secondly, to counter the Sophist claims that every branch of their teaching was an instrument, Socrates argued for the transcendent nature of truth. That is to say that truth and not power techniques are the proper path to virtue. Socrates saw the aim of education to “submit to the demands of the absolute” as Marrou puts it. Not that Socrates was opposed to all the Sophists espoused, but he certainly acted as a counterweight to their extreme commercialism and arrogance.

After Socrates death in 399 B.C, his followers (the lesser Socratics) carried on his work carving out for themselves a place between the Sophists and what Plato would represent. They taught wisdom rather than practical techniques but charged for their services ala the Sophists. Still, they were a philosophical school and not a school of rhetoric.

So now we come upon Plato, the man who wanted to be a politician and had his hopes dashed when he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Associated with the right wing aristocracy that tried to gain ascendancy during the period of the thirty tyrants, Plato’s opportunities were cut off when the new Democracy rose again in Athens, turning him into an anachronism. Frustrated at this turn of events, he travelled to Syracuse in an attempt to become the tutor for Dionysus the Elder. But Dionysus wanted sycophants instead of teachers, making Plato’s political theories a bad match for the situation. After coming close to an untimely end, Plato returned to Athens in 387 B.C. and founded the Academy, a school of philosophy and political science.

Plato’s role in the development of education could be called accidental in a certain sense. He sought to train political technicians who would become the rulers of Athens as part of his utopian concept of how governments should operate, similar to the old aristocratic approach, but he couldn’t have imagined that his model would form the basis of Hellenistic education after the triumph of Macedonia.

Plato built his system on the search for truth and designed it to create an understanding of the science of government superior to the imposter Sophists. His Academy was a fraternal organization of students and teachers who were engaged in the dialectic method as opposed to teaching through indoctrination. His organizational approach learning and personal philosophy are Plato’s great contributions to the history of education.

In Plato’s mind, education was a state concern. Teachers should be chosen by the government and managed by a special set of magistrates. Students would advance through several stages of learning: kindergarten before age seven, primary school where they would learn gymnastics, music, and mathematics until age ten, and then secondary school from age ten to eighteen. After secondary school, the brightest of the students would begin ten more years of training with advanced studies in all areas. When those had been mastered, philosophical studies could begin. 

Unfortunately, Plato’s system turned out to be too complicated for the practically minded Athenians. Frustration with the government’s unwillingness to embrace his model is reflected in some of the late dialogs which show bitter resignation.

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