Greece in the news: Plato vs. education spending

Congress is at it again! In discussing bill HR 5, the Student Success Act, newly minted Representative Dave Brat decided to call up antiquity (look to around 46 minutes in) to vouch for his idea that public schooling is incompatible with economic success. In what I guess is the more ‘democratic’ House (or maybe he just learned from Sen. Cruz?), he compared the US to Athens instead of Rome. Using his collegiate teaching experience to justify this tactic (by the way, his doctorate is in economics) makes it fair for us to treat him like an academic: with questions, disagreements, and debate (please add yours below!)

The biggest claim comes at the very beginning: “The greatest minds… were not the product of education policy.” No, indeed; they were the product of landed wealth and slaves. I’m actually a little concerned about Rep. Brat’s knowledge of history; the Academy was not “a rock”, and the Stoa was definitely not “a rock”; they were large, state-maintained public structures. In other words, Plato learned at Socrates’ knee in … a school.

He also seems to be a little confused about his Aristotle. We’ll leave aside the insistence that students don’t understand business, and that this is key to their future success. Plato is actually pretty clear that trades and schooling ought to be kept separate (check out the training of the Guardians at Rep. 375-415 — it’s all about the despised extracurriculars of music and gym!). Aristotle follows up on Socrates’ identification of the Philosopher king, who studies “the good” (Rep. 505), with not just one, but two, works explicitly devoted to determining exactly what “the good” is. For those of you who haven’t fought through either set of Ethics, the answer is that the good is what is good in itself. So if you are Scrooge McDuck, perhaps the answer is business. But for the vast majority of us, Aristotle has a different (and fuzzier) lesson: do what you love.


Brat also claims that “we need to get the private sector in … and have a revolution.” If he’s invoking democratic Athens, I’m not sure he’d like the revolution that he’d get. See, Athens was a democracy, in which all citizens (males born to Athenian parents who had reached their upper-teens and been judged physically fit) had an equal say in (*gasp*) public policy (yes, they had it too). The US, which has a system of representative democracy that is largely run by the wealthy, would be seen by the Athenians as not a democracy, but an oligarchy. This is actually Plato’s preferred system, but it was not a palatable solution to the average Athenian. If a statesman seemed to advocate an oligarchy, he could be killed on sight for fomenting revolution. This happened at least once in Athenian history, apart from the famous tyrant-slayers.

The best response: “I’m afraid we aren’t providing a very good civics lesson today.”

You can say that again. But then, when was the last time Congress did?



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