The Roots of State Education Part 2: Plato’s Case Against Free‐Market Education
History’s first great philosopher wasn’t a fan of educational freedom.
The place is Athens during the fifth century BCE. Hippocrates greets his friend Socrates with exciting news: the renowned Protagoras –a sophist (teacher of wisdom) — is in Athens. Protagoras charges a considerable fee his educational services, but Hippocrates is happy to pay the celebrated teacher and sage.
But Socrates (as written by Plato) cautions his friend. A sophist is an educational entrepreneur — “a merchant or peddler of the goods by which a soul is nourished.” Socrates then articulates what is probably the first market‐failure argument against free‐market education in the history of western thought. Most consumers are poor judges of educational quality, so they need experts to dictate their educational choices.
We must see that the Sophist in commending his wares does not deceive us, like the wholesaler and the retailer who deal in food for the body. These people do not know themselves which of the wares they offer is good or bad for the body, but in selling them praise all alike, and those who buy from them don’t know either, unless one of them happens to be a trainer or a doctor. So too those who take the various subject of knowledge from city to city, and offer them for sale retail to whoever wants them, commend everything that they have for sale. But it may be, my dear Hippocrates, that some of these men also are ignorant of the beneficial or harmful effects on the soul of what they have for sale, and so too are those who buy from them, unless one of them happens to be a physician of the soul. If then you chance to be an expert in discerning which of them is good or bad, it is safe for you to buy knowledge from Protagoras or anyone else. But if not, take care you don’t find yourself gambling dangerously with all of you that is dearest to you. Indeed, the risk you run in purchasing knowledge is much greater than that in buying provisions.…
Plato attributes this argument to Socrates, but it concurs with Plato’s own views. It exhibits Plato’s characteristic hostility to the sophists; indeed, his many allusions to the earnings of the sophists (thirty‐one in all) suggest that their entrepreneurial skills contributed to Plato’s wrath. His castigation of the sophists, even to the point of calling them intellectual prostitutes, is hypocritical, considering that Plato also made his living as a professional teacher. This has led one Greek scholar to suggest that “the pressure of professional competition” underlay Plato’s disdain.
The sophists, wrote H.I. Marrou (A History of Education in Antiquity), “were professional men for whom teaching was an occupation whose commercial success bore witness to its intrinsic value and its social utility.” They traveled from city to city and engaged in collective tutoring that might extend over a period of several years. Sophists brought about a “veritable revolution” in Greek education, adapting well to the educational free market in fifth‐century Athens.
Some sophists commanded large fees, but fierce competition lowered the fees of many teachers to the point where the Greek educator Isocrates could charge only one‐tenth of the fee collected by the illustrious Protagoras. Predictably perhaps, Isocrates complained that “blacklegs” (i.e., competitors) were undercutting his price by more than half. Duly offended at the verdict of a competitive market, Isocrates alleged that those who appear to sell instruction “for much less than its value” were obviously peddling an inferior product.
Plato’s argument that average people are not competent judges of educational quality was closely linked to his dislike of Athenian democracy, which he regarded as little more than mob rule. Plato harbored a deep distrust of the common man in politics and in every activity that requires special training. Derogatory references abound in the Platonic dialogues to the “nondescript mob,” the “ignorant multitude,” “the great beast,” and so forth.
This is the major reason why Plato attacked the sophists and Athenian free‐market education. Educational entrepreneurs give the public what it wants and so cater to ignorance and vulgar desires. As Plato says the Republic: “Each of these private teachers who work for pay, whom the politicians call Sophists, inculcates nothing else than these opinions of the multitude which they opine when they are assembled, and calls this knowledge wisdom.”
The sophist panders to “the motley multitude.” He must “give the public what it likes,” but will public demand coincide with what “is really good and honorable”? No, says Plato; any such notion is “simply ridiculous.”
Plato does not deny the ability of a free market to educate the people. Education flourished in Athens, but, according to Plato, this was not the right kind of education. Athens lacked the political unity of Sparta, and her people indulged in the corrupting luxuries that attend every society based on commerce. It was principally because of these flaws, Plato believed, that Athens had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars.
Moreover, there were no educational experts in Athens with the power to dictate her intellectual and cultural developments, so, according to Plato, she was degenerating into tyranny, which was widely regarded as the corrupted form of democracy. Specially educated guardians — men of spotless virtue trained in the art of governing a city‐state — should rule virtually without limit. A true knowledge of philosophy is accessible only to this elite; philosophy “is impossible for the multitude.”
In the Republic, Plato launches his defense of a philosophic ruling class by stressing the need for specialization and the division of labor: “More things are produced, and better and more easily when one performs one task according to his nature, at the right moment, and at leisure from other occupations.” This may seem, as some historians have suggested, to anticipate Adam Smith’s discussion in the Wealth of Nation (1776), but Plato has something very different in mind. Unlike the spontaneous economic division of labor that will naturally occur in a free market, Plato is arguing for a compulsory division of labor in the political sphere. Plato’s reference to “one task according to his nature” is absolutely foreign to Adam Smith’s way of thinking.
Plato describes political rule as the “science of guardianship,” an exacting discipline that requires special knowledge and skills accessible only to a few. A stable society requires a system of rigorous training so those best suited to rule will be able to discharge their proper functions.
A stable system of law (including custom, a kind of unwritten law) demands that members of a society be imbued with uniform and unchanging values. And because even the slightest deviation in social behavior can influence character, rulers should discourage innovation. All innovations in song and dance should be prohibited. This can be achieved, in accordance with the Egyptian example, by sanctifying orthodox music and dance — i.e., by investing them with religious significance. This means that an innovator can be exiled or, should he resist, charged with impiety (a capital crime in Plato’s ideal society). Plato feared innovation so much that he even opposed new games for children: “[I]f children introduce novelties into their games, they’ll inevitably turn out to be quite different people from the previous generation; being different, they’ll demand a different kind of life, and that will then make them want new institutions and laws.”
Since a young child “takes the impression that one wishes to stamp upon it.” children’s stories must be censored: “Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?”
Plato is just getting started. The purpose of censorship is to insure that only “the fairest lessons of virtue” are taught to children. Therefore, musical instruments must also be regulated. Certain instruments, such as the triangle and harp, should be banned. Even the crafts, such as painting and weaving, do not escape Plato’s censorial gaze. Once grant to the state the right to mold character and nothing except the most trivial can elude its grasp.
The jurisdiction of Plato’s rulers is staggering — medicine, physical exercise, even “law‐abiding play.” But I needn’t list every detail so long as we understand the chain of reasoning employed here, to wit: Education, broadly conceived, includes everything that influences the character of human beings. Thus, if education is a vital and indispensable function of the state, then the state has a right – indeed, a duty –to supervise every aspect of a person’s life.
Because of Plato’s comprehensive notion of education, there is scarcely any aspect of human life that his state, with its stranglehold on education, does not control. If by “totalitarian” we mean a state with power that encompasses the totality of human thought and action, then Plato’s educational state is as totalitarian as they come.
Plato’s basic argument against free‐market education would be repeated, in one form or another, by later champions of state education. Consider these remarks by the American sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who has been called the “father” of the American welfare state. In his influential two‐volume work, Dynamic Sociology (2nd ed., 1897), Ward advocated a comprehensive system of state education because this would shield professional educators from “the caprices” of “heterogeneously minded patrons.”
The secret of the superiority of state over private education lies in the fact that in the former the teacher is responsible solely to society, As in private, so also in public education, the calling of the teacher is a profession, and his personal success must depend upon his success in accomplishing the result which his employers desire accomplished. But the result desired by the state is a wholly different one from that desired by parents, guardians, and pupils. Of the latter he is happily independent.
Ward’s argument for educational experts who will operate without interference by parents – ignorant, narrow‐minded consumers who will neither understand nor desire the kind of education needed for the greater social good — would become a mainstay of the American Progressive movement during the early twentieth century. As much as Progressives prided themselves on basing their schemes for a corporate welfare state on the latest developments in social “science,” in this regard they were merely parroting an argument that had been defended nearly 2500 years earlier by Plato.