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Education in a Republic

Updated on February 4, 2019
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J S Penna, a retired editor and lover of English and American literature, pauses to muse on great works she appreciates.

Rosseau on the Delay of Academic Subjects

According to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophy of education, Emile's education in formal academic subjects will be much delayed and approached much differently in comparison to our own era.

The delay in presenting academics is the most outstanding difference between Rousseau's theory of education and today's. His argument for postponing included the idea of "education negative"--meaning that much is to be learned in the years prior to age 12 (which Rousseau fixed as the beginning of reason in a child) via "non-education" or purely experiential learning; e.g., through play and observation. Today, the "age of reason" is considered to be age 7. Even so, in Western societies we do not wait to that age to begin formal instruction. Indeed, simple reading is taught on a pre-school level.

Rosseau and His Method of Teaching Academic Subjects

The method of teaching academic subjects is also different today from what is described in Emile. Rousseau would have Emile learn (and individually) first those subjects which are practical, as they come up naturally and are experienced. Geography, for example, is very useful, and it would be one of the first things learned--in a natural setting, with the immediate, utilitarian aspects (direction, maps) stressed. So it would also be with mathematics--geometry and measurement are practical. Rousseau believed history was to be learned from biography, and movements would be stressed, not facts. Reading is introduced, but it is extremely limited because Emile has not yet developed critical judgment or taste.

And what book does Rousseau recommend? Robinson Crusoe--but not for the adventure plot, but for its practical applications: problem solving, survival, etc. Literature is introduced later, but way of exposing the youth to different styles and opinions (the thinking being that he by now is more immune to bad ones) and having him develop good taste.

21st Century Education

Modern educational practice differs markedly from Rosseau's template. Students are taught in groups, and are exposed to a wide range of academic subjects, beginning in early childhood. Although the scope of each subject is limited, the number of subjects is large: reading, writing, arithmetic, social studies, general science, music, and many others. A given amount of time is spent by the teacher on each subject during the school day. A measure of experimentation is provided for via open classrooms, special projects, hands-on and peer learning, and other similar vehicles for discovery. However, instruction in the majority of schools is still for the most part modeled on imparting information, and this approach continues over the next 12+ years.

Idealism vs. Reality

The modern reader will find it difficult to agree with Rousseau's plan for delayed instruction and with his stress on the experiential and applicable. A balance must be struck between knowledge for knowledge's sake and pure "practical" (or vocational) knowledge. There is room for both. Meanwhile, his concept of individualized instruction remains something of a Holy Grail for educators, as a true 1:1 ratio is impossible to realize in most settings except on the most fleeting of occasions. The closest thing to that is the one-on-one training by a parent or tutor--or specialized instruction in learning a musical instrument or a craft, for example.

What Would Plato Say?

In many ways, Plato's writings on education are closer to our modern ideas of education than Rousseau's. Plato held that an education system was the foundation of a society because it was through the education system that the society's values are transmitted and the society survives. Without either a value system or an education system to deliver it, a society would become chaotic, anarchistic, and would ultimately be destroyed. Each individual of the society must, therefore, be educated to be responsible, just, true to himself, etc. He is the microcosm of society--a society which, if composed of like, well-integrated individuals, will itself be a cohesive whole.

To that end, provision must be made for training in roles that support the needs of society, the choosing of leaders, and so on. Plato posits a society of three levels: the rulers, the guardians, and the craftsmen. In his view, the three are of equal importance to the existence of the state, and they are mobile in a limited sense, in that one may be born into one level, but he is then placed by aptitude into the level most appropriate to his abilities.

As Plato explains, the activities of the groups uphold the state: the rulers guide, the guardians defend, and the craftsmen provide essential goods and services. Thus, all aspects of an efficient, self-sufficient state are provided for. The citizens are educated according to their future roles. All take a basic course in physical (gymnastics) and mental ("music") training. The craftsmen then drop out to pursue an apprenticeship. The guardians and rulers go on to strenuous bodily training. The rulers go on beyond that to mathematical study. The idea here is that this will culminate after many years in the ability to think and to also attain knowledge and wisdom. This is in accordance with the virtues ascribed to each group: temperance to the craftsmen, courage to the guardians, and wisdom to the rulers. The groups are harmonious because they have been educated equitably during the early stages and, though their total education differs, they are doing what they are best suited to, and no one (theoretically) is any more important than anyone else. (No two groups could survive without the third; this is true. However, there is the specter of "prestige" lurking in where the ruling class or caste is concerned. And have we not seen this ourselves? We often talk of this or that group's having or believing itself to have privilege.)

Values -- But Whose?

Plato's ideas still stand up today. He presents a good case for his republic, though most would not agree with its structure. His views on education, for example, and how it relates to society are timeless. For a civilization to survive, it must pass on its values to the next generation.

With a homogeneous society, transmission of values is easier than with a pluralistic society. Which values get transmitted? "All men are created equal"--but are all of those men's values equal? Feminist values, for example, are at odd with Muslim views on the place of women in the world. Secular humanists and born-again Christians often have very different values and world views. Even different sects of Muslims disagree, as do different branches of Christianity.

Western societies in particular seems to be caught up in a maelstrom of differing opinions, so for the educational system to pass on the prevailing wisdom is difficult. This would not have been a problem in Plato's day--or Rousseau's, for that matter. Leaders and institutions cannot agree on the correct course of action or the correct belief system to hold. And if a cherished tenet is that all beliefs are equally valuable, then when those beliefs and values come into conflict, which ones are to be transmitted to the next generation? Yes, Western society struggles with determining exactly what it does value, and which of those sometimes conflicting values it wants to transmit to the next generation.

Yet, the transmission of accumulated knowledge cannot be random or haphazard, or every generation would have to go about rediscovering the wheel (figuratively if not literally), and civilization would never advance. However, the values being passed on must often be reexamined and reevaluated, because just as ideas are not necessarily true or correct because they are old, sometimes progress is not progress at all, nor the new values embraced any better than the old--just a swap for equally erroneous ideas; i.e., "the flavor of the month" (or generation). In such cases, the System often collapses due to forces (internal or external), and a new society and system of education arises. The two are inexorably linked.

© 2019 J S Penna


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