Schools are better than polls for democracy

I’m struck by a line that I read in Will Durant’s chapter on Plato in The Story of Philosophy: “A democracy of the schools [is] a hundredfold more honest and more effective than a democracy of the polls.” Filled with grief by the Brexit referendum, I see at once the wisdom in Plato’s thinking.

Politicians feel bound by the Brexit referendum because it’s “the people’s decision.” But did people understand what they were voting for? How could they? We don’t know now what Brexit will mean. Plus the campaign was filled with lies and misinformation. People voted with their guts not their brains, and we perhaps now live in a world where guts are respected more than brains. (I’ve leant that way myself.)

One of the biggest divides in a referendum that created (or exposed) many divisions was how people voted in relation to their education: people with higher education voted mainly to remain, people with little education to leave.

Britain is, and has been since time immemorial, a country divided by class, and nothing does more to maintain that division than our confusingly named public (actually private) schools. The elite, around 15%, go to prep schools and then public schools and, no matter how stupid, get a good education and a big helping of confidence. Some of the remaining 85% get a good education (I did), but many don’t. They are left handicapped.

Guaranteeing a good education to everybody would greatly strengthen democracy–more so than elections where most votes don’t matter (because we live in safe seats) and referendums that oversimplify complex questions and are decided by anger and unhappiness rather than wisdom.

But how to give everybody a good education? Plato knew. All children are exposed to gymnastics, music, and mathematics, history, and science presented as entertainment. Plato knew that “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind.” At the age of 12 comes the “Great Elimination,” a test in which “every kind of ability will have a chance to show itself, and every sort of stupidity will be hunted into the light.” The tests include “toils and pains and conflicts.”

Those who fail become the people who do the economic work of the nation. The rest receive another 10 years of education before another test. Those who fail become executive aides, the few who are left are then trained in philosophy and become the rulers, sleeping in dormitories without families and property. They may be men or women, and they must train in the practicalities of ruling before becoming independent rulers.

As Durant points out, this is roughly what happened for the next thousand years in Europe as clerics ruled; and what we have in Britain, an education system built around failure, is a corrupted remnant of Plato’s scheme, which Bertrand Russell thought fascist.

So how to create better schools in Britain and offer everybody the chance of the best possible education? I don’t know, but here are preliminary thoughts:

  1. Education must be fun, as Plato said. At the BMJ we abolished the word education and used learning instead. Learning is fun and endless. Education is too often boring.
  2. To make education fun requires a big imaginative effort. We are capable of it.
  3. Teachers will have to have high status.
  4. More resources will be needed (and I’d take them from “health”), but we must recognise that more resources may be counterproductive without reform and imagination.
  5. Tempting as it might be, it would seem like a poor start to abolish public schools, Rather they must be made available to everybody and be built on rather than destroyed.

I may not know how to achieve it, but, like Plato, I have little doubt that better schools would do more for democracy than our present polls. We have too narrow an idea of what democracy means.


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