Plato Discusses Compulsory Education in “The Republic”

Compulsory education is a system of education that begins at birth and identifies society’s future leaders.

A second-century relief from a Roman burial monument, depicting a boy reading to his teacher. Schooling was provided for boys only during Roman times. The notion of compulsory education refers to a period of education mandated by law or by some comparable authority. One of the earliest efforts to codify requirements for education is set out in the Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law. The Talmud recommends a form of private education in the family home that emphasizes religious matters in addition to training in whatever the family vocation might be.

Plato (c. 424–c. 348 BCE) was one of the earliest thinkers to draw up the architecture of a full-blown system of public education. In The Republic (c. 360BCE), he describes an education system designed to effect the social stratification that, according to him, is prerequisite for justice to prevail in a state. Plato wrote, “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.”

Plato, Philosopher and Mathematician in Classical Greece The education system of his republic begins at birth, when infants are removed from the family and raised by a collective. Educators are tasked with monitoring children in order to identify leadership qualities so that those who have “gold in their souls” (Plato uses this precious metal as a metaphor for leadership potential) can be properly trained to assume elevated offices of state, the highest of which is the office of philosopher king.

In Laws (c. 360 BCE), a later work, Plato presents a more moderate education system, one that more closely resembles contemporary systems. Infants are not removed from their families and there are no philosopher kings. However, proper social stratification is still the objective. Formal schooling begins at the age of six, when the curriculum focuses on literacy and arithmetic. By age thirteen, music is introduced into the curriculum, and at age eighteen the youth begins his terms of military service. By the age of twentyone, those students demonstrating the necessary aptitudes are selected for advanced studies that lead to the highest offices of the state. Education systems surprisingly close in character to this ancient model are now the norm in every developed country.

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