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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.


1. pp.192-193

2. Republic, 375: see the discussion in Education in Plato’s Republic, Ariel Dillon, 2004

3. See Republic 277

4. See Republic 378

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17 Comment on this post

  1. On the other hand, there will always be some children who prefer measuring things, and who are by nature more like Michael Gove than Charles Foster. And I’m sure most First World children will be thankful for their bountiful capitalist economies on the 25th of this month.

    1. I’m sure you’re right, Nikolas., there are all sorts of children out there. But I agree with Charles that the balance has swung much to far to encouraging “measurers”.
      Besides, I can’t wait to see the tabloid headlines on Monday : “Oxford ethicist’s sick drunken rave as half-naked women tear apart live bulls in forest frenzy”…

      1. Nikolas and Keith: thank you. Nikolas: There’s nothing ultimately bountiful about capitalism. Or at least, Keith, about the sort of capitalism we have now.

        1. Of course I agree, but the point I was making is that it could be different and it is too easy to blame capitalism and dream about other economic systems (education being part of the system). Marx did the easy stuff but never explained how his dream would work. The Gove, Johnson, et al interpretation of capitalism is not challenged by dreams.

        2. Charles wrote: “There’s nothing ultimately bountiful about capitalism. Or at least, Keith, about the sort of capitalism we have now.”

          This is silly (perhaps you should have spent more time learning about data and measurement, Charles). For one thing your characterisation of society is plain wrong: we don’t live in the sort of unfettered dog-eat-dog capitalist dystopia so beloved of the poetry and pimms set. OECD countries have tax/GDP ratios between 30-60% (roughly, if you include local taxes/municipal rates). It’s ridiculous to pretend that giving away* between one third and two-thirds of your gross income is anything like “market rule.” By historical standards, this largesse towards others is unprecedented. It’s only possible because our incomes are so high, i.e. because the combination of regulation, markets and the state that characterises liberal democracies are so efficient at delivering bountiful outcomes. Those are the only circumstances under which voters have been observed to put up with such high tax rates/such state-directed altruism. Poor countries don’t have governments that are (fractionally) this big, unless they combine large government with a notable absence of democratic franchise (e.g. Cuba, Soviet Bloc, etc).

          Economists believe markets are powerful (but not all-powerful) because there are huge observed gains from trade and specialization. That’s not very controversial among people who actually study this stuff, with numbers and data and all that messy contemptible business.

          I’ve never seen the attraction of portraying “the two cultures” as some sort of Punch and Judy show – there are a vast number of overlaps between the sorts of things that (e.g.) a humanities degree and a science degree might agree are interesting and compelling: fans of Ancient Greece might be interested in radiocarbon dating as well as in the beauty of the Odyssey; logicians are found in maths departments and philosophy depts, etc. I don’t see what’s to be gained by your sophomoric slights on the quantitative disciplines – Gove’s right that these disciplines have a lot of practical value as well as intellectual merit, and he’s probably right that the sorts of people who embark on education degrees and careers in hectoring children might have a tendency to undervalue quantitative subjects (how much mathematics is required for an education degree?). For my part, the more hysterically the educational elites squeal as a little bit of practical maths creeps in to the academy, the more convinced I am of the need for reform. [Which is not to say Gove’s reforms are the optimal/right ones… just that the greater the over-reaction to reform is, the more convinced I am that reform is a good idea.]

          *However involuntarily.

  2. ‘The zeitgeist of market rule, and the myth that it is eternal and all-sufficient – a generator of wealth, equity and ethics.’ Not sure what you are driving at here. Are you saying that Gove and the other economic illiterates are indoctrinating children (and their parents) with a distorted view of capitalism? Or are you saying that children should not study capitalism because it might in someway stunt their fertile little minds turning them into capitalist drones and workers?
    Surely we need to debunk the Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, et al interpretation of capitalism and teach an interpretation nearer to that of Adam Smith, Max Weber, et al. Weber believed that:
    ’It should be taught in the kindergarten of the cultural history that this naive idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering of this irrational impulse.’(The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p.17)
    Smith thought that capitalists, be they bankers, dealers, merchant men, industrialist or the landed gentry, should be regulated (self-regulation was rejected) because their interests were seldom in the public interest. He believed that high profits and low wages would ruin the economy (he would have legislated for a “living wage“); that utilities like the Post Office should be run by the State; that the engine of the market economy, the division of labour, would ultimately have a detrimental effect upon the intellect and morals of society and that the State would have to educate children and adults about the limits and dangers of the system. Of course he promoted self-interest but not in the way it is taught today. Smith and Weber recognised that unbridled market economies could, as you put it, stop us from asking dangerous things. ’Is there another way?’ Of course, but the answer is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. I think Gove is a strawman in all this Charles – though I don’t disagree with what you have said! I just think education has been like this (for me at least) well before the last election and Gove. It’s sad to see that the ‘best’ students at school are the most institutionalised. Working to a mark scheme to get a grade to get a university place etc. etc.

  4. Thanks, Anonymous. I agree that there’s nothing new about the programme: it has been going on at least since Plato! But Gove seems to me to be more brazen and unapologetic than many of his predecessors. And the fact that he can be illustrates how successful his forbears have been in convincing us that his principles are the only possible principles.

    1. Aha! Possibly but I am more inclined to think his brazen and unapologetic attitude doesn’t illustrate much beyond his own character, and maybe the extent to which he is convinced by his own words. I don’t think others are convinced, but I supposed a yougov poll would be needed to verify that.

  5. I think it’s a little ironic complaining that “They want to produce a generation of nerdish measurers”, when in terms of genuine intellectual utility (rather than paper qualifications), extended formal education has been of most benefit to those students entering technical or science-related fields. Outside of those fields, people who live creative lives and cultivate a wide range of interests (and extensive general knowledge) have tended to do so despite their formal education, rather than because of it. The fact that they can readily do so perhaps suggests that for the majority of students, creative or otherwise, we exaggerate the importance of “education policy”, beyond providing the basics that empower individuals to broaden their horizons as far as they see fit.

    1. Nikolas wrote “I think it’s a little ironic complaining that “They want to produce a generation of nerdish measurers”, when in terms of genuine intellectual utility (rather than paper qualifications), extended formal education has been of most benefit to those students entering technical or science-related fields.”

      “Like”, as they say on that socially-transformative interface for human communication, facebook (invented by a couple of those awful measurers).

  6. Dave: thank you. I agree with you that capitalism has devised some ingenious and occasionally generous solutions to the problems it has created.

    1. It was a serious question. But even if it was possible to consider crofting or some variant of it, it would no doubt end up as capitalism or some variant of it. I know quite a few people who went off to be crofters or commune members in the 1960s and 70s. All of them gave it up and some of them have tried to improve their bit of the capitalist system. It’s the stuff of dreams.

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