Plato for Plumbers—and 6th Graders

by Lisa Hansel
May 13th, 2014

Once, when I told a guy on a plane that I taught philosophy at a community college, he responded, “So you teach Plato to plumbers?” Yes, indeed. But I also teach Plato to nurses’ aides, soldiers, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, and any number of other students who feel like they need a diploma as an entry ticket to our economic carnival. As a result of my work, I’m in a unique position to reflect on the current discussion about the value of the humanities, one that seems to me to have lost its way….

The problem facing the humanities, in my view, isn’t just about the humanities. It’s about the liberal arts generally, including math, science, and economics. These form half of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, but if the goal of an education is simply economic advancement and technological power, those disciplines, just like the humanities, will be—and to some degree already are—subordinated to future employment and technological progress. Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”…

My experience of having taught at relatively elite schools, like Emory University and Oglethorpe University, as well as at schools like Kennesaw State University and Kirkwood Community College, is that there are among future plumbers as many devotees of Plato as among the future wizards of Silicon Valley, and that there are among nurses’ aides and soldiers as many important voices for our democracy as among doctors and business moguls.

Oh good. You’re hooked. Read the rest of this marvelous little article, “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers,” by Scott Samuelson over at The Atlantic. As you read, remind yourself that at its most basic, Core Knowledge is about Plato for all. To live freely, all students need the broad knowledge that frees the mind to think analytically. Core Knowledge provides a liberal arts education to the P–8 set; just as in higher education, the “goal is liberating a person from ignorance and superstition.”

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Plato courtesy of Shutterstock (and Athens).

That may be a lofty goal for the early grades, but much can be accomplished. The Core Knowledge Sequence introduces Plato in second grade. As a note to teachers explains, “The goal of studying selected topics in World History in second grade is to foster curiosity and the beginnings of understanding about the larger world outside the child’s locality, and about varied civilizations and ways of life. This can be done through a variety of means: story, drama, art, music, discussion, and more.” In studying ancient Greece, second graders develop “the beginnings of understanding” about democracy, worshipping gods and goddesses, the Olympics past and present, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—and more. In short, they develop the beginnings of their own freedom.

By sixth grade, Core Knowledge students have learned a good bit about major civilizations from all over the globe, as well as a great deal of American history. They are ready to build broad and deep knowledge of America’s debt to Athens, and to grasp how rare and precious their freedom is. Whether they become plumbers or business moguls (or both), this knowledge will serve them well. They will never be slaves to their jobs, or others’ beliefs, or the unexamined life. They will be free—as will every teacher who had a hand in their liberation.

 

3 Comments »

  1. On a related topic, this Sunday my students are celebrating the release of their philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE. (See http://www.contrariwisejournal.com)

    I am not just plugging the event; there is a deeper relation to the topic of this post. I have seen students grow interested in philosophy over the past two years. I have seen them grapple with texts such as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. What especially moves me is their intellectual delight. There is no standardized test for philosophy class. Since it meets only twice a week, for half a credit per semester, there’s reason (if one is thinking practically) to assign it low priority. Yet students throw themselves into it; many of them go beyond what I require on the assignments. Not everyone pursues it with such intensity, but many do.

    What students seem to enjoy especially about philosophy (though it is found in other fields) is the opportunity for serious intellectual play: the invitation to take an idea and see where it leads, no matter how useful it is (or isn’t). Such intellectual play is a kind of happiness: the happiness of finding interesting things to do in the mind.

    One reason that philosophy could go well with the skilled trades is that such trades don’t typically consume your life. You can make a decent salary as a plumber without working 60 hours per week. This means that you may have ample time for reading, thinking, and so on. Other jobs/careers (in technology, teaching, and other fields) demand just about everything you’ve got. You can squeeze in some reading, but you’re expected to work around the clock. A skilled trade can give you both sustenance and free time–which, combined with interesting books and projects, can come close to constituting the Good Life.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — May 14, 2014 @ 6:23 am

  2. The headline caught my eye, as I’m fond of the early Plato, especially the defense of freethinking in The Apology, and the heroic death of Socrates described in Phaedo. My business has the word Plato in its name as my homage to this seminal philosopher. Diana is correct about philosophy being an opportunity to experience happiness through intellectual play, an aesthetic pleasure akin to listening to inspirational music or viewing great paintings.

    I would also argue that philosophy can be very practical for everyday life. I sometimes re-read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus to maintain an emotional balance; their Stoicism is somewhat of an extended Serenity Prayer that helps me to refocus on what’s important in life. And theology in all its variants is part of philosophy. Why are we here? What is moral conduct? What happens after physical death? I’d bet that every human who has ever lived has pondered these questions to some degree.

    Philosophy is also very relevant to our lives as citizens, and is closely connected to other social sciences and humanities. Should economic efficiency be a society’s exclusive goal for its economy, or are there other worthy considerations? Are private property rights always inviolable, or should government intervene to minimize racial and gender discrimination in employment? If so, why? How far can a priori reasoning take us in constructing a just society, or do we need to consult human experience – history – before we try building a Utopia?

    All of these questions, and thousands more, deal with practical issues that philosophy can help to shed light on. Besides, young people tend to be very idealistic in their innocence and lack of direct life experience, so a skilled teacher should be able to whet their interests in thinking about philosophy.

    Comment by John Webster — May 14, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

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