Get your nasty Platonic hands off my kids, Mr. Gove
My book of the year, by a very wide margin, is Jay Griffiths’ splendid ‘Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape’ (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). Amongst her many virtues is a loathing of Plato’s Republic. Here she is, in typically swashbuckling style:
‘Excessive laughter is banned and so is the liquid superfluity of metaphor. Plato would rid his ideal state of anything that could arouse emotion, mischief, wildness or fun….so ghastly is his Republic that it could be interpreted as satire. But, generally, its ambition has been taken with deadly seriousness as a founding text on the education of boys. The purpose of The Republic is to school its youth to be good soldiers engaged in unending war to take the resources of neighbouring lands. It is a handbook for the education of imperialists.
Brick by brick, Plato builds the walls of his citadel of control, hierarchy and obedience. His ideal republic is obsessed with rule – not only the rule of command, but the rule of measurement… the heart of his vision [is] that Apollo, god of measure, metre, civilisation and, surely, god of metronomes, should keep Dionysus, god of the Romantic movement, god of wildness and nature, firmly under his thumb.’ 1
Familiar? It should be – at least to UK readers. It’s the policy of Michael Gove and his rightly vilified Department. They want to produce a generation of nerdish measurers – people who wield rulers rather than wands, and who write in Excel rather than blank verse.
Plato had two different prescriptions for education. The first was for the education of the warrior guardians of the Republic; the second for the Philosopher Kings. Gove is interested in producing warrior guardians. Like Plato, he wants them to be ‘noble puppies’, savage with the Republic’s enemies but meek with its friends.2 They will be unquestioningly obedient; they will never question the status quo. Plato knew, as the Jesuits and Michael Gove know too, that you’ve got to get to humans early in order to be sure of moulding them irrevocably.3
Plato insisted that children should be told lies – for instance that there has never been dissension amongst the citizens.4 That, he thought, would convince them of the importance of unity, and make them more docile and manageable.
What are Gove’s warrior guardians guarding? The zeitgeist of market rule, and the myth that it is eternal and all-sufficient – a generator of wealth, equity and ethics. Children should become adept at measurement, because figures are the language of the market, and because measuring is really boring, and will bruise your brain and stop it from dangerous athleticism, and because to measure the stalls in the market is a sort of obeisance to them, and because measuring keeps you busy – keeps you from asking dangerous things, such as: ‘Is there another way?’, and ‘Can this last forever?’, and ‘Is this making me and others happy?’ Because distraction isn’t always reliable (kids, especially, are curious about what’s being kept from them), active lies are necessary: tell them that the good citizens of happy capitalist countries are too content to need to build barricades of burning tyres, and that angst is a dirty, childish thing (always denigrate childhood and laud grown-up-ness), only seen as the world evolves away from Dionysiac chaos towards Apolline order.
That’ll do for now: I’m off to the woods with the kids and a bunch of screaming Maenads. And let social services do their worst.
2. Republic, 375: see the discussion in Education in Plato’s Republic, Ariel Dillon, 2004
3. See Republic 277
4. See Republic 378