Democracy and Education


This is the first in a series of posts that include some of the key ideas in my upcoming book on education. The book has a working title “Truth & Love.” Click on that category to see all of the posts and subscribe for details on the upcoming launch.

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Democracy set the stage for ancient philosophy in the city-states of Greece, where the words of a man could prove to be his life or undoing, depending on his skill in the art of rhetoric. Teachers of this art soon found ready employment by those who had nothing to say, but wanted to say it well.

According to Milton,1 the lie requires greater eloquence than the truth, but what happens when the rhetoric itself becomes the truth. What happens when the lawyer wins a case by means of sharp wit rather than the demands of justice? What happens when the elected ruler has only the credentials of a suave smile and a forked tongue? In vain, one might hope that such apparent issues have been resolved through the evolution of political theory since the enlightenment of the west.

However, as a tool to discover truth and identify a solution to such disastrous arrangements, philosophy seems to have failed. This is not by nature, but by misuse. A misunderstanding of rhetoric (as an end rather than a means to truth) led to the emergence of philosophy as a means to challenge the unfortunate trajectory of such arts. What can now arise to confront the unfortunate trajectory of philosophy, which considers knowledge as its end rather than as the means to some greater purpose of truth and justice?

In Plato’s own experience, it was the unjust condemnation of his teacher Socrates that most likely influenced his proposal of the philosopher king, who had been especially trained to lead in a way that did not allow for a misuse of justice through a misappropriation of democracy. Justice as the outcome of education is not far removed from the biblical purpose of teaching. The Proverbs were written by King Solomon to provide instruction in “righteousness, justice, and equity” (Proverbs 1:3). With the pursuit of wisdom and understanding you “will understand righteousness and justice and equity; every good path” (2:9). In another context, the prophet Isaiah describes what happens when all the nations flow into the “house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths [live wisely]” (Isaiah 2:3).

For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.
Isaiah 2:3b-5

This plea from the prophet places the potential of education squarely within the context of justice. The nations learn the ways (wisdom) of God. The law (instruction) goes forth from Jerusalem, and judgement (understanding) brings about peaceful government so that the nations no longer learn war. This comes about from walking in the light (or revelation/truth) of the LORD.

Another well-known example from the Bible places the pursuit of justice in contrast with the religious sacrifices that the people somehow thought would be an adequate substitute.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? …And it is sound wisdom to fear your name.
Micah 6:8-9

Again, the outcome of justice is connected to wisdom, and as we will see in many other places, a connection is made between wisdom and the fear of the LORD. Justice that comes from a wise ruler is not restricted to those who can pay for it, or can practice the eloquent art of rhetoric, but rather, it is for those who have no voice.

Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Proverbs 31:8-9

Critical theorists like Paulo Friere look to education as the means of bringing liberty to groups of people who live under the oppression of a capitalist society that fails to operate according to principles of justice. However, his challenge is to avoid imposing his own ways of thinking upon those he would seek to liberate. His pedagogical framework, which is fairly common among teachers seeking to empower their students (e.g. Brookfield “Powerful Techniques for Teaching Adults”) builds on an assumption that truth must come from within the person, rather than from some other source.

Thanks to a philosophical notion that there is no universal reality, he and most other progressive teachers would not be comfortable with Aristotle’s claim that virtue must be taught. How can it be taught if there is no way to claim one way of life to be more virtuous than another. Today’s philosophers are too busy asking whether or not there is such a thing as virtue to find out how it might be cultivated if it does exist. Education must move a student from one point to another, but if the outcome is undefined, then to what end must a person be educated?

Today’s philosophers are too busy asking whether or not there is such a thing as virtue to find out how it might be cultivated if it does exist.

The danger of this assumption about truth takes two forms. First, the progressive framework (first developed by Christian philosophers) presumes that history follows a predictable cycle of progress and attempts to define or force the next stage through a system of government and economics. This saddles a certain method of thinking, or a certain group of people with the unfortunate responsibilities of fate, but without the magical powers of time and destiny. Lacking these, they must employ force to coerce an entire society to conform to their perspective, often at the cost of life, liberty, beauty, and even justice.

Ironically, this approach was developed by Karl Marx in pursuit of a more just society and resulted in what may be considered the greatest examples of injustice in the last generation. On the other hand, if no one gets to determine what the outcome looks like, then everyone may do what is “right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Unfortunately, this outcome of anarchy is about as ineffective as communism at producing a just society. Both have abandoned the pursuit of truth with an expectation that it will come from one individual or from many.

In that assumption, they are not entirely mistaken. For the promise of the prophets was that God would make a new covenant with Israel:

…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD…
Jeremiah 31:33-34

This promise would have been a welcome arrangement to the system of laws that had been set up on the Exodus of the nation from the land of Egypt. However, it still did not leave the definition of virtue up to the individual. For if virtue itself remains undefined, then what reason is there for anyone to value justice in the first place? The position of the progressive educator is either untenable or completely arbitrary. Perhaps, it could even be considered unjust and contradictory if the pursuit of justice was forced upon someone else through a power-play. Education is essential to the cultivation of a free people, but it must be built upon a philosophical framework that accurately reflects the truth of creation.



[1] [I require] “no eloquence except that persuasion which lies in truth itself” – Milton and The Art of Rhetoric (p. 75). Shore, D. (2012). Milton and the art of rhetoric. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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