Politeia 3

S: Are you also saying that the city still needs the old model of education, where those who are being kept in the shadows are taken out of the cave, up to the higher world, to become enlightened about truth and freedom and nature?

D: Some would say so, yes, but I am not sure I would.

S: Why not?

D: Because there exists in the city a fundamental problem with any such idea of enlightenment. Even the concept itself is discredited by many who would refer to themselves as intellectuals, as teachers, and as students. 

S: Why?

D: Because enlightenment is wholly implicated as being in the service of, and of being an apology for, the prejudices carried within the city’s culture. It is what is used to distinguish the superior from the inferior. It is the weapon used to differentiate between classes of being. It is the measure used to discriminate between those of so-called greater and lesser natural intellectual abilities. It is the project that shapes the world in the image of an idealised form and colour and gender of human being. Enlightenment is now a wholly corrupted currency. The city has moved on.

S: Who expresses such a view? If it is the enlightened, then it would seem to be in bad faith? 

A: Often it is those same people Socrates. But I worry for a city that dissolves the idea of enlightenment. 

S: Why?

A: Without it, I see a city moving away from the principles of equality, fairness, tolerance, and compassion. I see a city destroying its own safeguards against prejudice, not least in regard to skin colour. I see it becoming more acceptable for women to be denigrated in public and openly abused in the privacy of the family home. I see leaders who want to divide the city into identity groups, each restricted to one language, to one set of beliefs, and to one set of values. I see those opposed to enlightenment as threating hard-won freedoms and values which speak of equality and justice for all. I see the city becoming increasingly unwilling to extend the hand of friendship to those fleeing desperate situations elsewhere. I feel an atmosphere of distrust and hatred taking over the city. And I see leaders whose bigotry is reshaping life in the city. But most of all I see people at first kept from, and then being encouraged to reject, exactly the kind of education―enlightenment―that will expose the powerful, call them to account, and create the transparency that is needed for a just city.

S: Perhaps the city has forgotten its own roots, its own vocation, in education.

A: If so, if it is the view of the enlightened that enlightenment is now injurious to the city, could we say that what really underpins the tensions and divisions in the city at the moment is a crisis of education?

S: That would seem to be a reasonable conclusion. It seems, from what you are all saying, that the city is tearing itself apart in a civil war in which education is in conflict with itself. It appears that this division sees the so-called educated blame the barbarians for the city’s troubles, and in turn, the so-called barbarians blame the educated for those troubles. One side blames the other for having either too much education or too little education. Let me then ask you this question. What if we were once again to offer a critical education to this angry city?

B: Then we would become part of the problem of another educated solution—we would become the elites telling everyone else that we know better than they do what is good for them.

S: Then education as the solution is already education as the problem, and education as the problem turns to itself once again as the solution?

B: A vicious circle that perpetuates the divide between the educated elite and the rest. 

A: It is hard to see how the two sides can be reconciled. If you use education to try to heal the educational division, you pour oil on the flames. 

C: And so, it would appear that the city which was to be the educational city and the just city finds education as the root cause, bearer, and reproducer of its injustices. As we said just now, the city’s crisis is an educational crisis. Those who were charged with representing education as self-sacrifice for the good of the city as a whole instead abused it for self-entitlement. And the truth of education they forced onto the city embodied this privilege, with a casual disregard for how the principle of formal equality reproduced inequality, affecting the poorest and vulnerable most. As the educated rejected the sacrifices required by them for justice in the city, so the uneducated now reject the educated and education as well. By turning education into an apology for power and claiming this to be the only solution to the city’s problems, they make education the source of injustice in the city. Everyone rejects education. The idea that education is the key to justice in the city seems dead.

A: Then what is to be done without some kind of critical education in the city Socrates? If philosophical self-examination is defeated, the war of anger wins. That leaves a city in which anger and division and prejudice are a way of life.

B: And a city that no longer believes in or seeks its own self-education, and which runs scared of such education, is a city destroying itself from within. 

S: Perhaps it is here that a different kind of education is to be found, one that doesn’t have the kind of mastery and control that enlightenment seems to be carrying. 

B: What would this different kind of education be? 

S: Perhaps one in which the city again encouraged itself to live the examined life?

A: But is the city any longer open to the labours of such enquiry, or is the examined life now redundant in the city? 

C: It is not clear to me that it ever thrived. People need bread before they can take up the leisure of philosophical pursuits. ‘Know thyself’ was always the decadence of the privileged. 

S: But the city cannot live by bread alone?

A: No. But perhaps it can live with bread and the immediate satisfaction of other material desires, even relatively sophisticated ones demanding complex technology.

S: Does the city have no greater aspirations for itself than that?

C: I leave you to judge that for yourself Socrates. 

A: But I worry that even if you were to begin teaching the examined life to the city Socrates, your efforts would quickly prove futile. We may well be beyond the time when anyone will listen to you again. It is most likely that you will simply be treated the same way as the city now treats anything that is serious and requiring of the efforts of thinking. It will judge you by the criterion of amusement. If you can entertain it, then the city might indulge you, but it will be only temporary, and it will abandon you as soon as a new entertainment distracts it.

S: If that is true, then I can no longer make a difference in the city?

D: That may well be the case Socrates, not you or your education. I am fast coming to the conclusion that, in the city as it exists today, the pursuit of justice through the examined life has failed. Your own plan for justice in the self-educating city has failed. And the city is now ripping itself apart in the fissure left by that failure, a failure whose resulting cynicism among the people is being exploited by a few somewhat malevolent opportunists.

B: So, if your education can no longer make a difference to the city, what will you do now Socrates? 

S: I will do the thing that freedom demands of me. No matter how unfavourable the circumstances are, I will begin again. 

A: And what do you think will happen?

S: Ha! I do not know what will happen. And that is exactly the knowledge I will begin with.

C: But who will want to listen to that? Education has exhausted itself. It is finished.

S: Aside from the spilling of more blood, it is still all we have.

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