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Plato’s Republic and The Art of Learning in modern education

I first met Josh Waitzkin before he had written The Art of Learning but after he had established his spectacular achievements in chess. Josh was an undergraduate in my Political Theory Barnard College course at Columbia University that I had taught there since 1969. This was a large lecture class but it was followed by small discussion sessions that I led. There, in this intimate but vigorous exchange of ideas, I became well acquainted with Josh’s ideas. Of course, I couldn’t have known then that many of his thoughts about education that he shared in those discussions would appear only a few years later in his book.
The political theory course started with an ample examination of Plato’s Republic, the foundation of western philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his own classic on educational theory, Emile, called The Republic “the finest treatise on education ever written.”
A central element in Plato’s theory is the way that he framed, for the first time in philosophy (western or eastern), the nature-nurture paradigm that continues to be discussed as a key concern of education. Although I had taught this class for decades before Josh joined it I didn’t realize until he came that his example aptly demonstrated Plato’s thesis.
Plato grounded his educational philosophy in two major concepts, first, the idea of arete, defined as an inherent excellence or natural gift in a person; and, second, techne, the skill subsequently developed in that individual through proper nurturing of arete. These two elements in a student constitute his or her essence. Acting together, they form the product of mind and character that may come only from a right education, or “art of learning”. All of this was first expounded in The Republic.
Although interpretations of Plato’s nature-nurture theoretical model have swung back and forth like a pendulum, to either put the two concepts at variance or emphasize one over the other, Plato carefully portrayed them as inextricably interwoven, insisting that only a firm understanding of how they worked together could produce the result intended, of a soundly educated person, whether the student develop an expertise in crafts, medicine or philosophy. In the end, the happiness of a community depended on the nurturing and implementation of a scrupulously conceived and applied system of education.
The presence of an individual’s inherent gift or inborn type of excellence is basic, yet if this quality is not discerned and cultivated by discerning teachers, then the system must fail. This is why Rousseau asserted that to view Plato’s Republic as a book about politics rather than education missed its fundamental purpose and meaning. As Plato emphasized when he introduced the nature-nurture paradigm, “education or nurture is the one thing that is an absolute requisite.” (Republic. IV. 423)
I believe that there’s no better explanation of the validity of Plato’s thesis about education than The Art of Learning, from the very first page, when Josh opens with a narrative that will forecast his future as a chess master. He describes his revelation on a day when he is walking with his mother in Washington Square Park in New York. It’s important to note that he’s only six years old, with no previous exposure whatsoever to chess. In fact, he had been mainly under the spell of “Spider-Man, sharks, dinosaurs, sports and driving[ his] parents crazy with mischief.”
Then without warning the epiphany occurred: “We had taken this walk dozens of times. I loved to swing around on the monkey bars and become Tarzan, the world my jungle. But now something felt different. I looked over my shoulder, and was transformed by mysterious figurines set up on a marble chessboard.” The sensation was “magical”.
Soon he began to play with an old man despite his mother’s apologetic admonition that he had no knowledge of chess at all. Instantly, his inner sensation of somehow knowing the game guided his moves. An inborn competence, a gift of excellence, an unmistakable display of arete shone forth at that early age. Josh relates how “My mom was confused, a little concerned about what had come over her boy. I was in my own world.” Yet the old player quickly intuited that something special was on display. He predicted from that one chance encounter that he would “read about you[Josh] in the paper someday.”
Following Plato’s theory, it’s easy to see that if Josh’s arete had been left at that moment, even as he would repeatedly return to Washington Square, now consumed with the game, then no one would have read about his subsequent achievements. The prerequisite to all the rest came with techne or the art of learning that he relates in riveting detail. It’s precisely the method found in “the art of learning” that determines the outcome of any person’s arete. This is why the main excitement of the book lies not merely in the discovery at the beginning but in the careful explanation that follows of how techne works through the educators who helped develop Josh’s talent.
In the ideal world of Plato’s Republic, the story would not be as random as Josh tells it here. The role of his loving father and mother would be replaced from the start by rigorously tested equivalents of Bruce Pandolfini, the master-level chess teacher that serendipitously recognized Josh’s unique gift one afternoon in the park. Plato’s community is tightly structured, organized around the paradigm that he pronounced so that no gift is left undiscerned because teachers are eminently qualified to perceive and elicit the excellence of each student. Of course, in our very different system of education, the tragedy from a Platonic perspective, is that so many minds are wasted. It’s ultimately a society that doesn’t care enough to cultivate concern for each achieving her or his potential excellence.
Now, I’d like to shift to my own attempts to take further the vital lessons contained in both The Republic and The Art of Learning. Following my classes with Josh and reading his life-changing book, I retired from teaching college in 2008 and moved first to St. Croix and then to Portland, Oregon. My sole purpose was to be near my two granddaughters, Mia and Sierra, then ages 5 and 3 respectively in order to be personally involved in their education.
I began teaching in their elementary schools from pre-K and then advanced with them to where they are presently enrolled, a Portland public high school. I wasn’t only concerned with them, of course, but with the students in sometimes large classes, attempting to discern their relative strengths and weaknesses in one subject or another.
My question was whether Plato was correct about each child, regardless of sex (because Plato’s theory was gender-neutral, a revolutionary ideal in ancient Athens), having an arete or special excellence that should be developed by a particular mode of education, Josh’s “art of learning”? Although my experiment hasn’t had the systematic quality of a proper scientific study and is surely influenced by personal bias, I have come to appreciate its value throughout the last eight years. Above all, I’m gratified that after teaching Plato’s Republic since 1965 (first, at the University of London), I’m pleased that in certain ways it’s applicable in the real world of education rather than dismissed as a utopia. As I’ve said, Josh’s theory and practice show the way.
In the ethics class that I’m now teaching in high school, we employ the Socratic dialogue to instruct students in various moral philosophies, from Plato to the present. An art of learning is applied that stresses not competition but co-operative discourse in the way that Josh describes. In contrast to the adversarial style of debating, our classes foster conversational civil discourse.
Specifically, the philosophies that we examine begin with classical Greek thought (Plato and Aristotle), then move to ethics of Kant (deontology), theories of Bentham and Mill (utilitarianism), feminist care (Carol Gilligan and Nell Nodding), contract theory (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls) and finally the ethics of nonviolence ( M.K.Gandhi and Martin Luther King). The aim is to teach each of these six ethical philosophies by using excerpts from primary texts, supplemented by Michael Sandel’s Justice (together with his video lecture series).
We direct these readings at “cases” of moral issues or ethical problems, e.g., of racism, sexism, xenophobia. There is no effort to find a final solution for remedying these various afflictions but to subject them to civil discourse or, as I said, in the spirit of a Socratic dialogue that resembles Plato’s classic style.
Josh’s crucial emphasis throughout the book on the value of a non-aggressive art of learning, recognizing and imparting a plurality of theories, becomes an indispensable guideline.
In the fall semester of 2017, I intend to return to Barnard College to offer a first year seminar called “Ethics” that will further test this experiment at a university level. Wish me luck.

-Dennis Dalton, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University, N.Y.


  1. Eric Brooking says:

    I hope that you focus on learning for the individual rather than falling into the ever so popular politically correct views of racism and sexism. As a middle school teacher I find that people are driven away from trying to find the best education of the individual by the magnetic draw to ones own political beliefs at the expense of the individual. I find what you started off saying about ones own arete fascinating but when you started talking about gender neutral you sounded more like a standard educator driven by politics. I wish you the best and I hope to learn more about discovering an individuals arete. Thanks for making me think.

    • Eric, thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my brief piece for Josh. You and I seem to share a strong commitment to education at all levels. Thanks to my granddaughters, I became an elementary, middle and high school teacher myself after I retired from teaching college for 44 years. I’ve taught from K-10 here in Portland, OR for 8 years. I learned from this experience the truth of what Plato wrote in the Republic, that education must begin at the earliest level and most of all that it should try to impart VALUES in children. This led me to teach in a project called the “Ethics Bowl”, to carry on the learning process through a conversation about values. This fall semester, I’m returning to Barnard College for the first time in 9 years to teach a seminar in Ethics and leading a team of undergraduates to compete in the national Ethics Bowl. Perhaps, to use your term, this could be called “driven”, but I prefer the word “inspired.” In any case, I hope that we might enter into a meaningful conversation about how to teach ethics at all levels of education. Best wishes, Dennis

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