When I’m Old and Gray!

Have you read Plato’s Republic?  I continue to come back to this work regularly in my thought and conversations about education.  It seems seminal to any discussion about education in Western culture.  I know that the stated focus of the work is imagining the just society, but Plato makes it crystal clear that any such society can only be just if its educational foundations are true.  The point haunting me right now is the speed of his vision.

Plato builds the whole argument for education on his vision of the greatest good.  The best leader for a just society is one who has thought his way to the highest good.  The path or curriculum that Plato believes will lead such a leader to this highest good takes roughly fifty years to pull off!

With some lee way for differing development, here is how he lays out the 50 years needed to become a true philosopher king:

  • (Age 0-5) 5 years of playing so as to become familiar with life in the world
  • (Age 6-12) 5-7 years of “music” or learning to use language to gain harmony in one’s life; seems to be about learning that all truth is unified
  • Age (13-17) 5 years or so of developing one’s mind through mathematics (which is a different type of experience than the modern one – it develops a mind that can think in the abstract)
  • Age (18-20) 3-4 years of dedicated physical gymnastic (discipline of the body)
  • (Age 21-35) 15 years of contemplation and dialectic seeking the greatest good
  • (Age 36-50) 15 years of practical experience in seeking the greatest good

Now stop and contemplate that.  In our current pace of life – which by the way generally has a longer life expectancy than did Plato’s culture – we would consider all this way too long.  But his point is rather important here:  not taking this long probably is why we don’t have such people in our midst today.  Our culture tries to get to the good life not by the long and narrow, but by the short-cut route.  And to make it easier, we have greatly reduced the greatest good down to something rather easy to obtain.

I am approaching the big 5-0 this year.  In Plato’s estimation, I am just about ready to do something significant (if I had been following his path, which I have not).  Yet I begin to sense from many around me that folks my age are already preparing for retirement, for heading out to pasture, to the very least have been doing things long enough by now to be earning the really big bucks, ’cause you ain’t got much time left.

And I teach impatient students who want advice on the best short cuts to the good life.  Plato’s map is much more difficult, but it leads to true treasure.



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