George H. Smith takes up a new theme in this week’s Excursions, beginning a series on the intellectual roots of state education. The first essay takes us quite far back, all the way to conflicting philosophies of Athens and Sparta.
As post-Renaissance intellectuals looked back on Sparta, many saw something other than brutal totalitarianism. They saw a planned, well-ordered society where individual goals were subordinated to the common good, a society where education was controlled by the state and where civic virtues were instilled in children at an early age.
Plato and Aristotle, though by no means unqualified admirers of Sparta, endorsed the Spartan principle of state education, and their endorsements played major roles in elevating the Spartan model to a pride of place in the modern era. Plato’s blueprint of an authoritarian society called for a state system of centralized education supervised by a minister of education. “In this conception,” wrote the Greek scholar Ernest Barker, “Plato was definitely and consciously departing from the practice of Athens, and setting his face towards Sparta.” Plato’s aim was “to combine the curriculum of Athens with the organization of Sparta.”
Plato’s view of the relationship between the child and the state reflects the Spartan influence, as we see in this passage from The Laws. “Education is, if possible, to be, as the phrase goes, compulsory for every mother’s son, on the ground that the child is even more the property of the state than of his parents.”