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Turning students from "Bieber Fever" to J.S. Bach

Florian Hild has served as principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins since 2008. He has taught literature, philosophy, and German at Ridgeview since its founding in 2001.

I had the pleasure of reading Plato’s analogy of the cave with two different classes recently: the 7-9th grade Socrates elective and the Moral Philosophy high school requirement. In Book VII of The Republic, Plato lets Socrates “make an image of our nature in its education and want of education.” Over the next few pages, he lays out the practice and purpose of education. Regarding the latter, Socrates says: “education is not what the professions of certain men assert it to be. They presumably assert that they put into the soul knowledge that isn’t in it, as though they were putting sight into blind eyes.”

In other words, some “educators” treat students as empty vessels to be filled. In today’s scene, the stuffing would be whatever is on the test.

I am fortunate to work at a school where all teachers (from kindergarten to graduation) are Platonic teachers (though many consider themselves Aristotelians, Thomists, Randians, Stoics, Christians, and so on): We are Platonists, because we share the goal of leading our students out of the cave of first impressions to see the light of truth. We are Platonists, because we are convinced that each student has the power to see.

“‘[T]he present argument, on the other hand,’ I (Socrates) said, ‘indicates that this power is in the soul of each.'” Socrates argues against the empty vessel theory of education, against the tabula rasa theory of human nature, by claiming that each human being possesses the power to see and therefore learn (seeing and knowing are the same word in Greek).

We are all born with eyes, and education is not giving sight but turning the eyes to behold worthwhile things. More Socrates: “There would, therefore, be an art of this turning around, concerned with the way in which this power can most easily and efficiently be turned around, not an art of producing sight in it. Rather, this art takes as given that sight is there, but not rightly turned nor looking at what it ought to look at, and accomplishes this object.”

The Platonic teacher, therefore, chooses as her material things worth looking at. The music teacher, for example, has to turn her students’ sight from Justin Bieber to Johann Sebastian Bach. As an uncontroversial catalogue of worthwhile things, E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence serves us well at Ridgeview, and we have built an entire high school on top of it, focusing on the great works, discoveries, and events of our tradition. Our curriculum is thus the means to the end of turning the students’ sight toward worthy things.

Platonic education is “the art of this turning around.” A beautiful thought for us teachers. The artful teacher turns the sight of the student to “what it ought to look at” and Socrates defines the worthwhile direction of sight as “the truth about fair, just, and good things.”

In other, more modern, words, the student stops surfing the internet on her phone and looks at a Euclidean proof, a tree, a work of art, a friend or parent. Turning the sight of students toward “the truth about fair, just, and good things” seems to me like the best possible job description for teachers and parents. One student even told me she thanked her mother for making her do homework after our discussion of Plato’s cave: “Thank you, mom, for being such a Platonic parent.” A great compliment.

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