End of the line

The Cave

In The Republic, Plato argues that the enlightened have a duty to return to the cave to help the prisoners there. The older Plato no longer believed they could be helped. When bands of ideologues get control of the state, they eliminate dissidents from public life and bring children up in the new creed. Such regimes can be toppled by force, but the philosopher has only the authority of the spirit. Any attempt to restore order by violent means defeats itself. Having made his offer and been refused, the philosopher leaves the cave for good.

Will the fed reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, AKA NCLB) or will the process break down again again in endless spirals of argument and counter-argument? The controversies remind me of a parable told by the stranger from Elea in Plato’s Statesman. It’s about what happens when “the people” start to regulate those with experience and knowledge. The problem is that it’s impossible for ordinary laymen to judge the work of experts, which ends up meaning as ordinary people get more influence on government, the decisions tend to get worse.

The Eleatic Stranger tells about the plight of a pilot and a physician. With the layman’s dim insight, he sees only that the physician causes him pain, charges more for his cures than the material substance is worth, and often does not effect a cure. Similarly, the pilot causes damage at sea and throws his merchandise overboard during storms. Both the physician and the pilot may save lives, but this doesn’t spare them harsh judgments in the view of indignant “victims.” If we suppose that such victims form a special interest group, we can easily imagine them, completely ignorant of the true arts of navigation and medicine, creating a set of laws to regulate the future conduct of pilots and physicians, with the shrill confidence of Bill O’Reilly in his campaign for “Jessica’s Law,” which leaves no room for future discretion.

Though Plato knows that the neither the pilot’s nor the physician’s knowledge can be summarized in exceptionless rules that will serve well in all situations, the Stranger doesn’t stop here. He further suggests that the aroused people will demand that from now on physicians and pilots will be chosen by elections, and after the election they will need to heal the sick and navigate the sea according to written rules. Not only that, but at the end of each year, the incumbent pilots and physicians will face a people’s court, where anyone will be free to lodge accusations that the letter of the law was not precisely followed. Those found guilty by the people will face fines or jail sentences.

Plato thought only fools would enter those occupations under such conditions. And that’s not the end of the matter. No one will be allowed to question the law. One who offers new discoveries will be accused of playing politics, trying to corrupt the system, for “nobody should be wiser than the law.”

Plato knew, of course, that it was just such lawfulness and democracy that culminated in the murder of Socrates–the death of philosophical reason, if you will. He spoke directly to the deadening power of laws and democracy possible in a place that has become corrupted, so that skilled practitioners are over-regulated by ignorant congresses: “The arts would utterly perish and could never be recovered; and life which is a burden even now would then no longer be worth living.”

In contemporary America we see such processes at work clearly in those parts of society most governed by political bureaucracies: law enforcement, education, and (increasingly) medicine.

The more congress argues about education at the federal level, the more meaningful conversations at the local level, the only place any actual teaching takes place, are drowned out.  As new mandates flood the system, busy administrators are overwhelmed with compliance issues and tend to look on questions or reservations as little more than trouble-making. So teachers are mandated to collaborate, but they are discouraged from identifying things that aren’t working or proposing solutions.  A popular reform program claims that teachers are free to think whatever they want, as long as they do what they are told. It’s called a “tight-loose” approach. On some matters, the reins are held tightly by the system, and on others they are quite loose. Most things that matter are defined tightly, though whether or not they are defined sanely or correctly is deemed above the pay grade of practitioners.

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