Learning Goals and Teaching Methods for Exploring the Republic

HomeArticlesLearning Goals and Teaching Methods for Exploring the Republic

The obligation to teach students how to think effectively has been an important educational objective for several decades. “One of the teacher’s greatest responsibilities is to cultivate in students the ability to think clearly and correctly.[1] Thinking skills are even more important today than in the past because of the rapid increase of knowledge and the speed with which knowledge becomes obsolete. Nobody can know everything today, nor do we need to know everything, inasmuch as computers can serve as storehouses of information. Thus, since most educators agree that the pressing skill for the 21st Century is critical thinking (the mental ability to find, select, and analyze relevant information to solve problems), the contemporary issue for teachers is to determine the most  effective methods for how to teach critical thinking skills. Numerous studies and programs have emerged lately that stress either writing across the curriculum, critical thinking across the curriculum, or an integration of reading, writing, and thinking skills across the curriculum.[2] These new programs are on the right track.

The main claim of this article is that the cultivation of critical thinking skills in service to the community is a legitimate goal for the core curriculum, which can be pursued through a variety of exercises in speaking, listening, reading, and writing on the theme of citizenship in Plato’s Republic. I first explain the concept of critical thinking and then begin the demonstration of how the Republic can be used to cultivate critical thinking skills.[3] Next, I elaborate some thinking, speaking, listening, reading, and writing principles and exercises that can be used to explore the theme of  citizenship in the Republic. I offer a few examples of how these exercises can be applied to studying the Republic. Last, I clarify the concepts of moral responsibility and citizenship, argue that they should be a part of the core curriculum, and again begin the demonstration of how the Republic can help in this endeavor.

Before discussing the concept of critical thinking and its cultivation through studying the Republic, an underlying assumption  should be examined. An epistemological assumption underlying the new focus on teaching reading, writing, and thinking skills across the curriculum – rather than in separate courses – is that these skills are discipline-specific. Because each discipline has its own set of criteria for what constitutes effective writing and thinking, it is claimed that these skills should not be taught in separate courses.[4]  It is true that there is no such thing as reading, writing, and thinking in the abstract; there are only particular acts of each of these cognitive activities. However, that fact does not imply that there are no general principles of reading, thinking, or writing. By virtue of the fact that people as diverse as physicists, sociologists, and historians engage in these activities, it follows that there are probably some general principles that structure these activities. Otherwise, we would not even be able to detect a similarity in cognitive activity across disciplines.

Furthermore, the existence of separate courses in the principles of speech, reading, and composition attests to the fact that there are numerous experts who hold that there are general principles of these activities. Thus, these skills are not entirely discipline-specific. Teaching the principles of critical thinking in a separate course is a philosophically defensible position. In the first place, general principles of clear and correct reasoning have been identified and successfully taught in elementary logic courses since the time of Aristotle. Aristotle successfully catalogued and lectured on numerous general forms of valid deductive arguments, general forms of informal fallacies, and general forms of inductive reasoning. The generality of forms, such as modus ponens, modus tollens, and the pure hypothetical syllogism are what makes it possible to apply these forms of correct reasoning to different arguments in different domains.

In other words, these forms of correct and incorrect reasoning are structurally the same in, for example, physics, history, or sociology, even though the content of particular arguments in these domains is different. General principles of effective reading and writing are also observed by physicists, historians, and sociologists, such as focusing on the main point of a passage, clearly defining central terms and coherently organizing a written document around a clearly articulated thesis. Because these principles of effective reasoning are observed by the best practitioners of each discipline, these skills are not just discipline specific.

Even though there are general principles of effective reading, writing, and thinking skills, it does not follow that they should only be taught in separate reading, composition or logic courses. First of all, teaching these skills across the curriculum will reinforce these skills, especially during the core curriculum phase of a college education when emphasis should be on cultivating skills that are necessary for advanced research in a specialty.[5] Because the liberal arts of reading, writing, and thinking are difficult to master and capable of infinite refinement, every opportunity to refine them should be utilized.

Second, illustrating general large argument forms in a separate critical thinking course or elementary logic course with material content that every student understand is difficult. One person’s common knowledge is another person’s expert knowledge, and so students become easily confused with examples that presuppose knowledge they do not possess.

Third, cultivating reading, writing, and thinking skills in every course is important because students will acquire a better understanding of the course content. Formulating a written understanding of the main point of a passage in historical documents or sociological studies, or constructing arguments to support a hypothesis in  physics, challenges the student to achieve a clear grasp of the material. This kind of exercise is called writing for learning.

Fourth, applying general principles of effective reading, writing and thinking to specific disciplines is the ultimate purpose of learning the principles in the first place. Separate courses in the skills of reading, composition, or logic should never be considered ends-in-themselves, for they primarily exist as methods of inquiry in the activity of discovering, using, and synthesizing knowledge in the other domains throughout the curriculum.

A final reason for teaching these liberal arts across the curriculum is it will cultivate the sense of  unity between students and the framework for appreciating the inter-connectedness of each of the areas of human knowledge. E. D. Hirsch has explained the loss of community and a shared intellectual framework among students as a result of the fragmentary nature of late twentieth century higher education. [6]

Instead of trying to overcome this lack of a common body of knowledge through having students memorize a set of concepts, as Hirsch recommends, the sense of community and inter-connectedness between the departments of knowledge could be attained through focusing on the skills of critical reading, writing, and thinking that are used in each discipline. Students will not only share a very similar educational experience, but they will also be able to make the connections between their courses by seeing how they are related through these cross-disciplinary intellectual skills.[7] The teaching of the five liberal arts of thinking, speaking, listening, reading, and writing across the curriculum will cultivate a sense of community and provide a shared culture that centers around common intellectual skills that all educated people should possess. Let us turn to the first liberal art of critical thinking.

Critical Thinking Skills and Plato’s Republic

Before we can discuss how studying Plato’s Republic can help cultivate critical thinking skills, we must examine the concept of critical thinking itself. The concept of critical thinking is relevant to the teaching of philosophy, for “philosophy” may be defined as the art and science of critical thinking about fundamental beliefs and values. A recently published study on critical thinking, sponsored by the American Philosophical Association, is instructive here.[8] In this study forty-six experts on critical thinking from twelve disciplines agreed on six cognitive skills that they think constitute the ideal critical thinker: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-monitoring.[9] We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self­ regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based.[10]

First of all, according to these experts, the skill of interpretation involves the ability to clarify meaning. Being able to define terms adequately is essential to thinking clearly and correctly in any field because terms are often vague or ambiguous and in need of definition.

Second, the skill of analysis is the ability to identify and analyze arguments. Being able to recognize the main point of a persuasive passage and break it down into its constituent parts is essential to clear and correct thinking in any field because this facilitates discussion of relevant and material issues.

Third, the skill of evaluation is the ability to assess truth claims and arguments. This skill is vital to work in any field because there are competing truth claims and arguments in every field, and being able to distinguish truth from error will help settle these disputes.

Fourth, the ability to draw logical inferences enables one to foresee consequences and identify assumptions. These logical reasoning abilities also enable one to arrive at the truth and avoid error.

Fifth, explanation skills consist of being able to justify procedures and shed light on how one has reached particular conclusions. Being able to present arguments is a sub-skill of the skill of explanation, which is central to any kind of rational activity.

Sixth, the purposeful and self-regulatory judgment involved in critical thinking is the meta-cognitive ability of monitoring one’s own mental  activity for errors. This is an important facet of critical thinking, for without it, errors may go undetected and problems may go unsolved or be compounded. Cultivating intellectual dispositions is just as important in teaching critical thinking as cultivating intellectual skills.

The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. [11]

Students might be able to provide an interpretation of a passage or evaluate an argument when asked to do so by the instructor, but if they are not habitually dispose to do so on their own, they cannot be considered an ideal critical thinker. A disposition to spontaneously exercise these cognitive skills is part of the ideal critical thinker, for if they are not integrated into the student ‘s natural reactions, then they are of little practical value when critical thinking opportunities suddenly arise. Consequently, the cultivation of mental dispositions, such as inquisitiveness and open-mindedness, that would spontaneously express themselves in certain cognitive activities, such as interpretation and evaluation, is an essential goal of critical thinking pedagogy.

The forty-six did not reach a consensus on the issue of whether or not the “good” critical thinker was somebody who only used his/her CT skills for ethically appropriate purposes.[12] In other words, the experts were unwilling to conclude that the ideal critical thinker should not use his/her CT skills and dispositions for deceptive or solely selfish purposes. They thought this put too much of an ideological component into the concept of critical thinking. It is true that the psychological or ethical egoist may see nothing wrong with the sophistical use of CT skills and dispositions, but it seems the concept of CT presupposes an ethical component. Honesty in facing one ‘s biases, open-mindedness, and willingness to reconsider views presuppose a repudiation of the sophistical use of CT  skills and dispositions. One cannot do these things without being concerned about something other than one’s own well-being, for the arena for most CT applications involves others. Ethical considerations always arise where others are involved. Even if this ethical dimension is not built into the notion of CT, I would argue that it is vital that educators do not divorce ethics from logic. Doing so contributes to the fragmentation of both the curriculum and the student’s life, which is exactly what the core curriculum is trying to avoid.

Teaching Plato’s Republic provides ample opportunity to cultivate these CT skills and dispositions, but only if the instructor is a model of the ideal critical thinker. First of all, students learn by imitation, and a careless thinker cannot hope to produce careful  thinkers. Second, students  must be actively involved in interpreting passages, identifying arguments, evaluating claims, drawing inferences, explaining  their  reasoning, and monitoring their own thought processes. Because students learn by doing, the instructor should not lecture on the Republic. He/She should get them involved by asking a series of logical questions regarding their interpretations of key passages and how they justify their interpretations. What did Socrates mean when he said in Book V at 473d that the ills of a city would never end until philosopher s became kings or kings became philosophers? What other passages could be used to justify an interpretation of what it may have meant to Socrates? What sort of interpretation would passages, as those at 416d in Book Three on communism or at 605b in Book Ten on banning poetry imply? By doing this on a regular basis, students have ample opportunity to develop the habits of mind that are fundamental to critical thinking.

The skills of argument analysis and evaluation, as well as the dispositions of trust in reason and fair-mindedness in evaluation, can also be cultivated through in-class debates on central issues in the Republic. Debates require that students collect and weigh evidence in support of conflicting opinions, which is essential to the mental habits of recourse to reason and fairness in problem solving. Debates also cultivate the second and third liberal arts of speaking and listening. Students could debate an issue, such as whether or not Plato was correct that democracy is not the best form of government (557a-566d), in formal groups or as a class with individuals informally imagining each side of the issue.  This is an important topic for core curriculum studies in American colleges, for Plato’s criticism of democracy is one of the most unique criticisms of democracy in the history of thought.  Moreover, students would be forced to examine an almost self-evident truth in American life and thought, which would help them learn to provide reasons for one of their most basic beliefs as Americans. Suppose that the instructor announced an up-coming debate on this issue. The following two guidelines on fair/logical thinking and speaking/listening should be studied by students before the debate begins .[13]

Guidelines for Logical and Fair-minded Thinking

A. Looking at Both Sides of an Issue

1. Formulate the issue.

2. What question underlies the passage?

B. Be aware of your bias on the issue.

1. What is your position right now? Don’t let your initial opinion pre-determine the issue. Be open­ minded. “A bias recognized is a bias sterilized.” (Albert Eustace Haydon, former University of Chicago Professor of Comparative Religion)

C. Identify Plato’s position (conclusion) on the issue.

1. What answer does Plato give to the question?

D. Summarize Plato ‘s reasons (premises) in support of his position.

1. What facts, values, or concepts does he implicitly or explicitly think establish that his position is true?

E. Summarize an equal number of reasons against this position, whether mentioned or not in the Republic.

1. What facts, values, or concepts implicitly or explicitly do not support his position?

F. Evaluate the truth of each assertion on each side.

1. Which reason is based in the most well-established facts, most obvious values, or most consistent concepts?

G. Evaluate the logic of each argument (the conceptual connection between the premises and conclusion).

1. Even if the premises were true, would they be relevant, sufficient or acceptable enough to establish the conclusion?

H. Decide which position and reason (argument) is the most persuasive.

1. Which position has the best reasons in support of it?

I. Remember your original bias on the issue.

1. Do you still have the same opinion?

Bad Reasons

A. Do not appeal to what you want or wish were true.

1. These considerations are emotionally relevant and should be respected, but they are not logically relevant to the truth of the position.

B. Do not appeal to your likes and dislikes.

1. Likes and dislikes may establish what causes you to believe something, but they do not establish that what you believe is true.

C. Do not appeal to majority opinion.

1. The majority has been wrong a number of times.

D. Avoid changing the issue, unless both sides agree to do so.

1. Sustained thinking is required to think through an issue.

E. Do not distort the opposing evidence or position.

1. The goal of philosophy is truth-not victory.

F. Avoid over-generalizations and stereotypes.

1. Be sure that you have at least three examples to support your generalizations .

G. Do not restate your personal opinions.

1. You argue in a circle when you support your opinions with the fact that they are your opinions . Moreover, you assume that you are infallible, which is false.

Good Reasons

A. Use reasons all the time.

1. Philosophy is the search for good arguments about what is good, true, and beautiful. Unsupported claims, by definition, are not arguments (arguments are supported claims). Therefore, unsupported claims are inappropriate in philosophy.

B. Define your terms.

2. Communication require clear concepts.

C. Appeal to well-established facts and principles.

1. Use common knowledge, expert testimony, eye-witness accounts, logical truths, or reasonable arguments to support your claims.

D. Use credible sources of factual information.

1. In order to avoid the appearance of making up facts in controversial matters, it is appropriate to cite your sources. With Plato’s Republic, for example, it is appropriate to substantiate your interpretations of his views with other passages from the Republic, respected commentaries, or dialogues by Plato.

E. Stay cool, calm, and collected.

1. Thinking is impossible when one is emotionally upset.

F. Stay impartial, open-minded, and supportive of the insights of both sides.

1. There is an important insight in every position. When one does not stay open to the ideas of others, not only is a fight likely, but an opportunity for learning is lost.

Speaking and Listening Guidelines

1. Try to get everyone involved.

2. Students should talk to each other.

3. Query assumptions.

4. Build on what others say.

5. Draw out implications.

6. Consider opposing viewpoints.

7. Paraphrase the other person’s points.

8. Avoid taking differences personally.

First, students should think about the questions on the guideline for awhile after reading the passages on democracy. They could identify their biases on the subject to the instructor, who would assign them to the team that must argue the opposite conclusion. This mental exercise aids in understanding there are always at least two sides to every philosophical issue, which should help in developing a fair and open mind. Then, the students could separate into their respective groups for time to discuss their answers to each of the questions on the guideline. By looking for good reasons and avoiding bad reasons, they can start to formulate some cogent arguments. Small group dynamics are such that leaders will emerge who will take charge of thinking through the issue for the group.

When the day of the debate arrives, the instructor acts as the moderator and establishes the format for the debate. Each team has ten minutes of opening arguments (20 minutes total), and each team has five minutes of rebuttals (10 minutes total). Both teams have a period of fifteen minutes for open discussion of the arguments and counter-arguments from individuals on each team who have been recognized by the instructor (15).  The formal debate ends with five minutes of closing arguments from both teams and a decision and rationale by the instructor on which side had the most rationally convincing arguments (5). Because a standard fifty minute class period is not much time for a formal debate, it is crucial that the instructor move through each phase of the debate as efficiently as possible.

The instructor and students will probably notice that the participants do not really listen to each other. Mortimer Adler has recently, and correctly, observed that listening skills are seldom taught at any level of formal education.[14] Where there is an emphasis on speaking in class, the focus is on how well the individual can organize and deliver his/her speech, but there is precious little discussion of the art of listening to others in a conversation and dialogue. Adler argues that listening in a conversation is just as important as speaking because the sense of community that can emerge from an engaging conversation is impossible without excellent listening skills.[15] It is common knowledge that if somebody in a conversation thinks that the other is not listening, he/she feels offended. This perception of rude conduct forecloses the possibility of a dynamic dialogue, which, in turn, prevents the personal intimacy required for a sense of community. Because people tend to focus on what they have to say rather than on what is said by the other, the instructor needs to be sure that the students respond to precisely what the other person said. This can be done easily by explicitly directing them to respond to each other rather than just use their rebuttal time to articulate their opinions.

The class period after the debate should probably be devoted to a discussion of the debate. This gives both instructor and students a chance to assimilate insights on the benefits and dangers of democracy that were gleaned from the fast pace of the exchanges. Time could be taken to discuss examples of good and bad reasons that appeared in the debate. (The moderator should take careful notes of the flow of thought in the exchanges.) Also, time could be taken to analyze the reasoning process – point/counter­ point – embedded in the format of a formal debate and to assess the value of the debate format in philosophical discussion. Last, the students should be encouraged to appeal the instructor ‘s decision and rationale, if they disagree. This follow-up discussion builds trust in reason and fair-mindedness, strengthens self-confidence, and deepens insight into the dialogical nature of philosophy for both instructor and students.

Some students may think that the results of the debate were inconclusive. If this occurs, that would provide an excellent opportunity to inquire into the nature of philosophy. Most of Socrates’ discussions ended that way. Why is that? Perhaps his interlocutors were not open to reason. Perhaps there is never enough time to definitively settle philosophical issues. Perhaps the results of all philosophical reasoning are inconclusive since no physical or mathematical evidence can be adduced to settle any philosophical issue beyond a reasonable doubt. A reasonable doubt ­ a doubt that a fair person of common sense would raise – can always be raised about “the best” form of government because an “ideal government” is only limited by one’s imagination.

Moreover, philosophical issues are not factual issues; they are matters of opinion. Most factual issues are issues that can, in principle, be settled definitively, but matters of opinion are matters where there will always be some level of disagreement. Matters of opinion are matters of judgment that can only be settled by a preponderance of the evidence, a tipping of the balance towards one side or the other. An appeal to experts can count significantly towards settling scientific issues but is not conclusive evidence in settling issues of philosophy. The purpose of a philosophy course is not to definitively settle philosophical issues; the purpose is to help students cultivate their judgment (wisdom) so that they will be able to tolerate ambiguity and appreciate that reasonable people may disagree. Formal debates are only one method for teaching students how to think for themselves.

The fourth liberal art of reading critically can also be very useful.[16] Reading critically is the ability to break down a written passage into its component parts and evaluate how well the author succeeded at his/her task. The following reading guideline outlines the sequential steps in critical reading.

Critical Reading Guidelines

 A. Analysis

1. Identify Plato ‘s topic, issue, purpose, tone, and historical context signified in a particular passage.

a. What is Plato’s main topic in the passage?

b. What main question does the  passage answer?

c. What is Plato doing?

(1) Defending a position?

(2) Criticizing a position?

(3) Inquiring into the implications of an idea?

(4) Elaborating an idea?

(5) Illustrating a point?

(6) Explaining an  event?

(7) Telling a story?

(8) Stating beliefs?

d. What tone (attitude) does Plato or any of his characters express towards the people, positions, or cultural context of the passage?

(1) Identify the historical forces that were influencing  Plato at the time he wrote the passage.

(2)  Identify emotions, motives, or personality traits of Plato or characters in the dialogues.

2. Specify Plato’s main position (conclusion/main point) and his supporting reason or evidence (premise/grounds) for it. That is his main argument.

a. What is Plato trying to  persuade  you  to  believe or do?

b. What are reasons for believing or doing that?

3. Ascertain whether or not Plato ‘s main argument and supporting arguments are deductive or inductive arguments.

a. Does Plato think the premises provide necessary support for the conclusion? If so, the argument is a deductive argument. In other words, if Plato thinks that the conclusion must be true on the assumption that the premises are true, then the argument is a deductive argument.

b. Does Plato think the premises provide probable support for the conclusion? If so, the argument is an inductive argument. In other words, if Plato thinks that the conclusion is probably true on the assumption that the premises are true, then the argument is an inductive argument.

4. Recognize Plato’s supporting arguments.

a. What further arguments, alleged facts, or principles does he think prove are true?

5. Note key terms and definitions.

a. What do the central words in the passage mean to him?

6. Identify Plato’s implicit or explicit assumptions.

a. What does he presuppose is true, right, or good – whether articulated or not?

B. Evaluation

1.Decide whether or not Plato’s terms are clearly defined.

a. Are any of his definitions either too narrow, too broad, circular, non-essential, or unnecessarily vague?

2.Judge whether or not his deductive argument (s) are logically valid or logically invalid, or whether or not his inductive argument (s) are logically strong or logically weak.

a. A deductive argument is logically valid when the argument is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion could not be false. A deductive argument is logically invalid when the argument is such that even if the premises were true, the conclusion could be false.

b. An inductive argument is logically strong when the argument is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion would probably be true. An inductive argument is logically weak when the argument is such that even if the premises were true, the conclusion would probably be false.

3. Decide whether the premise and assumption are true.

a. Are there any false statements in the premises, assumptions, or conclusions of either the main argument or supporting arguments?

(1) Statements can be false on the basis of logical truths (such as the law of the non-contradiction), common knowledge, expert testimony, eye-witness testimony, personal experiences, precedent setting documents, or rationally compelling documents.

4. Evaluate the implications of Plato’s positions.

a. What are the implications of his positions?

b. Judge whether or not these consequences would be beneficial to society, or violate any valid moral principles.

5. Evaluate the significance of Plato ‘s ideas in relation to their influence on subsequent historical and philosophical developments in consultation with your professor. (This step may require further research.)

a. What role did Plato’s ideas play in education?

b. What role did his ideas play in philosophy?

c. What role did his ideas play in theology?

d. How significant was the role in your estimation?

This outline should be studied at the beginning of the reading of Plato’s Republic and followed by the student and professor throughout their reading and discussion of each of its ten books. There must be room for the creative development of any engaging line of inquiry or discussion that might develop in reading or discussing  the book, and so the outline may sometimes be too extensive to be meticulously or mechanically followed each day in class.[17] In that event, only the most essential stages of critical reading should be observed.

The most essential pedagogical objective with the outline is to teach students to separate the analysis stage of reading from the evaluation stage of reading. students, and readers in general, for that matter, tend to begin reading a passage with personal biases that prevents them from “hearing” the author. A “bias” in the context of reading means a pre-judgment about the outcome of a passage before it is completely read and studied.

The most common personal bias in reading is to take exception to a topic, issue, purpose, or thesis before finishing the passage. This does not  allow  the author to fully state her case. Many readers are not taught to suspend their biases on a topic when reading, so they simply discount anything that is contrary to their opinions. This problem can be alleviated by clearly distinguishing the neutral analysis stage of reading from the personal decision making stage of evaluation and by restraining the students from judging the veracity and cogency of the work until it is fully comprehended on the terms in which the author intended it.

Of course, a totally unbiased reading of Plato is impossible, or of any author for that matter. If  “an unbiased reading of Plato” means a reading that is completely open to Plato’s ideas and completely accurate in understanding Plato on his own terms, then an unbiased reading of Plato is impossible. First of all, in order to understand a book, one must apply a framework for understanding it, because books do not speak for themselves.[18]

However, by imposing a framework of interpretation on a book, the reader is not being completely open to it, but if the reader does not apply a framework to the book, the reader will not be able to interpret it. This is known as the hermeneutical, or interpretive, circle. Second, since authors are very seldom present to take questions about their work, and even if they were, since writing/thinking is an on-going process of revision, they may interpret their own book in several ways. What is the author ‘s intention? There is no one correct interpretation of Plato; there are  many plausible interpretations. This conclusion, though, should not be reached until a concerted effort has been made to read the entire work with a mind that is as open as possible to what the author is trying to say.

Before turning to the fifth and final liberal art of writing, an objection to the analytic search for arguments in Plato’s dialogues must be raised and met. The thesis of Professor James Arieti’s Interpreting Plato: The Dialogues as Plays is that Plato’s dialogues are better interpreted as plays than attempts to persuade readers of  certain philosophical positions. Socrates’ obviously silly arguments in places and his abundant use of figures of speech indicate he was not trying to articulate a rationally consistent  set of philosophical positions.

Instead of analyzing and evaluating arguments in the dialogues, Arieti recommends we simply try to identify a plausible message or two for each dialogue. In particular, Arieti thinks that the function of the Republic was to invite Greek fathers to send their sons to Plato’s Academy for education in learning how to participate in discussion like one represented in the Republic.[19] Plato’s dialogues ought to be read more like one would read a comedy of Aristophanes than like a treatise of Aristotle.

Arieti ‘s objection, though, is not entirely justified, for his objection is based in a false dichotomy. The issue is not whether or not we read Plato’s dialogues analytically for arguments or as plays with a message or two about the philosophic life. We can read them for both arguments and as plays with an overall message about life. The best way to approach a “classic” is through a plurality of  different levels of interpretation. A book becomes a classic, in part, because it contains numerous levels of meaning. Arieti has a good point that the elements of drama, such as plots with a pattern of conflict and resolution and the humorous use of puns, irony and sarcasm can be found in the Republic. The conflict in Books One and Two between two wealthy young men and Socrates over trying to decide between choosing to live a moral life or an immoral life and its resolution in Book IV is essential to an in-depth reading of the Republic.

However, Arieti should  also acknowledge that the Republic contains arguments in support of different positions too. The Republic is not as inconclusive as the Euthyphro and the Meno, for there are clearly articulated arguments in support of  positions. Consider the persuasive language on the good life in Book one 351d-352c); the arguments that there are three parts of the soul in Book Four (439a-440a); and passages that justify waiting till age thirty to begin the study of philosophical dialectics in Book Seven (539a-d). A well-rounded reading of the Republic will analyze both its arguments  and its drama. Let’s turn to the liberal art of writing as another way to teach students how to think for themselves and to think critically.



[1] George F. Kneller, Introduction to Philosophy of Education (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 1964), 18.

[2] Linda C. Stanley, Joanna Ambron, Editors, Writing Across the Curriculum in Community Colleges,(San Francisco, CA: Jessey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 1991). John McPeck, Critical Thinking and Education, (NY: St. Martin’ s Press, 1981). Joann Romeo Anderson, Director, Integrated Skills Reinforcement: Readinq. Writing, Speaking. and Listening Across the Curriculum, (NY: Longman, 1983).

[3] The remainder of the book will complete the demonstration of this thesis.

[4] John McPeck has elaborated this argument in the above mentioned monograph and a recent collection of essays entitled Teaching Critical Thinking, (NY:  Routledge, 1990).

[5] Derek Bok, outgoing President of Harvard University, makes this point in his Higher Learning, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 35-72.

[6] E. D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

[7] The emphasis here on intellectual competencies does not preclude content. Making connections between disciplines and between the disciplines and life will provide a common content for the students too.

[8] Peter A. Facione, Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction, (Santa Clara, CA:  The California Academic Press, 1990).

[9] Faciones’ tables on pages 3, 12, 25, and 28.

[10] This is a quotation from the table on page 3 regarding their definition of the ideal critical thinker.

[11] Ibid., 3.

[12] See 21-24. (Hereafter, “critical thinking” will be abbreviated with “CT.”)

[13] The guidelines in this book are examples of how to study the Republic, and they are not meant to be taken as “the only way” or the best way” to study the Republic. Because of Plato’s now unfamiliar style, some guidance is necessary though.

[14] Mortimer Adler, How to speak, How to Listen (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983). See his introduction.

[15] Ibid., 15-16.

[16] I am indebted to Mortimer Adler ‘s and Charles van Daren’s How to Read a Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, rev. and updated 1972) for the general contours of my philosophy of reading.

[17] The bulk of A. 3 and B. 2 may be eliminated. If this is done, the focus here should be on evaluating the logic of Plato ‘s arguments and the truth of his premises. Would his position be true, if the premises were true?  Are the premises true?

[18] It was this point about books that Plato reported kept Socrates from writing books. See Phaedrus and The Seventh and Eighth Letters, Trans . by Walter Hamilton, (London: Penguin Books, 1973), 95-99.

[19] Arieti, 23, i-246.


Also available are “Plato’s Republic in the Core Curriculum,”  “Writing Exercises and the Republic,” “The Philosopher as Citizen,” and “Moral Conduct and Citizenship.”

This excerpt is from Plato’s Republic and the Core Curriculum: Critical Thinking, Moral Education, and Citizenship (University of Lamar Press, 1990)

Jon Avery

Written by

Dr. Jon Avery is a retired lecturer in philosophy and religious studies from Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky and a former secretary-treasurer of the American Association of the Advancement of Core Curriculum. He is also co-author, with Hasan Askari, of Towards a Spiritual Humanism: A Muslim-Humanist Dialogue (Seven Mirrors, 1991), and editor, with Kevin Dodson, of Ways of Knowing: Selected Readings (Kendall Hunt 2000).