Comparison Of the Views Of Arendt and Plato On Education

            One essay is from the 20th century; the other is over two thousand years old - Comparison Of the Views Of Arendt and Plato On Education introduction. Yet both deal with the very real problem of education versus indoctrination, the encroachment of politics into education and the changing face of education itself.

            Hannah Arendt wrote of the crisis in education occurring in the 1950’s, in terms of modern psychology changing the very purpose of the educator in the classroom as well as the trend of challenging authority. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates pleads his own defense as an educator who encourages the young to question what is around them rather than simply accept the status quo of religion and the gods’ involvement in their lives. His crime was teaching the young how to think, not what to think.

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            Plato and Arendt both make a very strong case of people with strong reputations actually being deficient in wisdom. In Apology, Socrates describes his interviews with men reputed to be much wiser than himself, only to find the contrary (p. 6). Socrates goes on to describe seeking out expert craftsmen, in the hope of finding wisdom in them. He reports to the court that the craftsmen were exceptionally skilled in their area of expertise, but they also transferred this expertise into other matters in which they were not well versed but claiming authority anyway because of their reputation (p.7).

            Arendt makes the same claim with modern education; that modern educators are simply trained in teaching and not in the mastery of any one subject in particular. This degrades the learning of the student (P. 172). Arendt’s claim is that the modern teacher can no longer rely on his authority because he is often “just one hour ahead of his class in knowledge.”

            In attempting to come to terms with how to properly educate the young, Socrates encourages the student to be a self-sufficient thinker; Arendt advocates authority of the real kind in the classroom, since children should not be their own authority.

            Arendt speaks against the autonomous childhood as the time to play-not-work (p. 183). He advocates the educator being the authority that will gradually introduce the young to the world by replacing learning through play by learning through work, and by this he means doing. As he demonstates, a child can only learn language by speaking it, which is doing, rather than studying grammar and syntax.

            Socrates pleaded his case by asking why it is harmful for the young to actively inquire deeper into matters taken for granted simply because of common consensus. He also emphasized the need to act rather than passively absorb. Where the two part company, however, is in Socrates’ statement that just like a big horse who is lazy because of his size needs to be stimulated by the sting of a stinging fly, Socrates is himself the stinging fly of a lazy Athens who needs a shakeup in thinking (p. 17).

            Now we come to the responsibility of an educator; according to Socrates, a true educator guides his students into thinking for themselves in terms of examining evidence and weighing reason. Arendt disagrees with this, claiming that the young need to have authority to respect in order to truly learn. The educator’s job is to both protect the child from and prepare the child for the world.

            Arendt brings up the point that America is a nation of immigrants, and the educators are responsible for educating not only the immigrant children but also their parents as well through assimilation. Arendt asserts that the inherent problem with the American education system as well as its modern society and “New World Order” mentality is the illusion of equality when in fact there is not equality (pp. 176 – 179). At first this assertion is startling, but upon further inspection one can see the reason in Arendt’s argument (and a complete agreement with Plato’s Socrates): In creating artificial equality, there is no authority; therefore, the young, being on an equal par with their teachers, fall into the trap of having to follow the majority (p. 181). This was exactly Socrates’ argument in defense of his conversations with the young and his interviews with authority figures; whatever the majority said, it seemed, was the truth.

            In both works, the politics of education was deplorable and the very core of both arguments is the degradation of quality in favor of simply making young people useful and compliant with what the majority thinks is socially and politically acceptable.

            In clarity of argument, Socrates is more eloquent and wordy in his choice of words to defend himself; he contradicts himself in order to see if his accusers and the jury is awake, and gets himself into deeper trouble by using that tactic. Socrates directly faces his accusers and interviews them in an enlightening and logical manner, yet at the same time he angers them further by challenging them in their own ways of thinking.

            Arendt, in his article, is the accuser, taking a system and mind-set to task for putting educators in the position of being psychologists rather than teachers and simple teachers rather than masters. He pointed out very accurately the problems besetting public education and the negative effect it has on the young.

            Looking at both arguments regarding education, I must say that modern education has become so complex and entangled with politics and policies that it difficult to favor either Plato or Arendt. Plato is right to challenge the mediocrity of education as simply listening and accepting what is offered; Arendt is right in his outrage regarding the erosion of American education via doing away with true masters of a subject and having, instead, glorified babysitters.

            Perhaps Arendt is more to the point in his arguments simply because he writes from the standpoint of a new society where Plato wrote from a civilization that had already been well established. In America’s current system, freedom of speech is being removed and so is freedom of religion, even though religion does not technically belong in public schools in the United States. In Plato’s time, religion, law and education went hand in hand.

            Who can accurately say what the problem is with American education today? There definitely is a problem, and it would have to be agreed that educators are losing their ability to conduct their job due to government intervention from public demand, but it is likely that it is not the majority of the public who has insisted on these changes. It is likely the well-connected minority.

            Human nature being what it is, it can be expected that maintaining a status quo is important. But with the advent of so many newer theories and mental illness to cover just about every discipline problem that has ever existed, Arendt’s assessment addresses the more complex issue than does Plato’s. Plato’s Socrates was about the influence of one man on society. Arendt covers a plethora of complex issues that still face our country and in examining his article, it seems that he is accurate in his accusations of public education being at the mercy of a reactive government that resists being educated itself.

            Given the early 21st century circumstances in the United States, it is easier to see how Arendt’s thoughts can more readily appeal to the reader since he addresses the concerns of a country founded by and built by foreigners. As we more and more become the true “melting pot” of the world, we inherit more problems from citizens’ countries of origin through cultural differences and language barriers, which certainly upset the statistics in regard to American public schools.

            Since the best education is still to be found in private schools which many cannot afford, public schools are government funded and therefore subject to government policies, regulations and continual changes. This is a damaging blow to the teachers as well as college professors who are caught in the crossfire of the shifting sands of the political winds of the day.

            Arendt’s article is quite prophetic even if it is antiquated; the problems of America’s public schools are now existent in Europe, especially Great Britain.

            Where Plato’s Apology addressed the need to teach the young how to think and Arendt would rather see authority return to its rightful place in schools, it seems that today philosophy, politics and religion are combining to uproot the very foundations of education by limiting the rights of the educators themselves and leaving them to themselves to invent teaching methods that are engaging and active rather than focus teaching students in some of the finer disciplines of perception and analysis.

            At this point, since neither Plato or Arendt saw the sleeping giant of corporations that would become the true power over governments, it will be interesting to see where education goes with business thrown into the mix of interference and decision-making in the educational process.


Arendt, Hannah. “Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought.” Viking Press, New York. 1961. Pp. 173 – 196.

Hamilton, Edith (ed.). “Plato: Collected Dialogues.” Princeton U.P. 1989. Pp. 4 – 26.


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