Plato’s Republic in the Core Curriculum: Multiculturalism and the Canon Debate

HomeArticlesPlato’s Republic in the Core Curriculum: Multiculturalism and the Canon Debate

The Issue of Multiculturalism

Plato’s Republic is under fire right now. Stanford University’s core curriculum students are no longer required to read Plato’s Republic because it represents “anti-assimilationist movements” (Stone 1989, 362).1 A core curriculum is that required part of the undergraduate curriculum that transmits the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that any well-educated person should possess, regardless of future work. The writer in the Wall Street Journal who quoted the statement from the Stanford professors in charge of the revised reading list expressed bewilderment about the meaning of the phrase. However, given the shift in the Stanford reading list to numerous works by feminists and Marxists, it is evident that Plato’s Republic is not “politically correct.” That is, Plato’s Republic does not contain the core values and beliefs deemed appropriate for the Stanford graduate.2 Let’s explore some reasons behind that assessment.

First of all, as is well-known, many American university leaders today are promoting the value of multicultural diversity in part through strict speech codes against classist, elitist, sexist, and racist speech.3 So, because Plato separates the members of his ideal community in the Republic into three distinct classes that are not to mingle, and thus does not propose an egalitarian society, the Republic has been deemed unacceptable reading material for core curriculum students.

Second, Plato has been under some just fire from feminists in the latest wave of American feminism for his sexist views of women in the Republic (Annas 1976, 307-21; Lange 1979, 3 15). For, indeed, Plato does express his belief in the general inferiority of women to men in the Republic (Grube, Stephanie numbers 398e, 455d, 579b). Nevertheless, his entire views about women in the Republic are not entirely sexist, for Plato broke from the Greek educational tradition that neglected the education of women to declare that women of outstanding physical, intellectual, and moral abilities ought to receive the same education as their male counterparts (456b). This feminist view not withstanding, Plato’s Republic was thought not to promote multicultural diversity between the races, classes, and sexes, and was thus eliminated from the core curriculum at Stanford University in 1988.

This issue of multiculturalism in the contemporary university is a curriculum debate between traditionalists trying to preserve the classics of Western civilization and progressivists who are trying to “open-up” the canon, in the words of English professor Paula Bennett, to other voices in the Western tradition, and even beyond the Western tradition (1992,172). There is nothing wrong with this objective, if the foundational ideas and values of our common Western tradition are not ignored, for students need to read the classics of Japan, China, Africa, and South America in order to live as intelligently conscious adults in the growing world culture in the twenty-first century. What is unfortunate in the debate is that it often becomes highly emotionally charged and strident, polarizing both sides rather than leading them to the multiculturalist vision of a new inclusiveness of world community and culture.4

On the other hand, Plato’s Republic has its defenders in the 1980’s and 1990’s reform of general education for American university students. Allan Bloom and Mortimer Adler still recommend generous portions of it, albeit for different reasons (Adler 1988, 268; Bloom 1987, 380-81). Bloom passionately explains that the crisis in liberal learning in the American university is a result of numerous causes: rock music, the new vocationalism in higher education, the relativism of current philosophy, and the politicization of the goals of higher education. Bloom, though, seems to think that the Republic is without error, and so part of his answer to the reform of American higher education is to teach Plato’s Republic to those few students who are still capable of being inspired by a genuine liberal arts education. For “. . .it might be the best thing available” (Bloom 1987, 310), and “. . . contemplation of Socrates is our most urgent task” (Bloom, 1987, 312). Perhaps this sounds elitist to the multiculturalist; but, according to Bloom, only a few American university students today are even interested in a traditional liberal arts education.5

Mortimer Adler has been promoting a program of core education in the “Great Books” since his tenure in the 1920s at Columbia University and the 1930s at the University of Chicago. Contrary to Bloom, though, the “Great Books” for Adler are not a repository of unchanging truths that should be taught to all college students. Rather, books are great if they cause us to think about perennial issues that all human beings confront, regardless of race, sex, or ethnic origin. Thus, the Republic is great according to this conception of great literature since it causes us to think about such perennial issues of human concern as the nature of justice, the content of an ideal education, the relationship between art and moral conduct, and the qualifications of the best kind of ruler.

Some multiculturalists do not believe that Plato’s Republic should be included in the literary canon of the future. The term “multiculturalism” denotes a recent movement among an amorphous group of women’s studies, black studies, humanities, and education scholars, such as Elaine Showalter, Lionel Jeffries, and Peter McLaren who, usually coupled with deconstruction and liberation movements, stress the value of equality and seek to teach the writings of non-white males. Their argument is that since the “global village” of the twenty-first century will be a diverse one, American university students need to be educated in the ideas and values of people of color, women, and ethnic groups. Further, the history and literature of white European males is important, but it is no more important than the history and literature of different peoples of color and women, whether European or non-European. In short, since the value of equality between the sexes, races, and classes of the world is a central value to life in a multicultural world, and because the Republic does not promote that equality, it follows that it should not be taught in the core curriculum.

The multiculturalist’s argument, however, rests on a questionable assumption about the best method of cultivating responsible members of this diverse world. Naturally, quality works by women and people of color should be studied, but as vitally important as the educational goal of reducing racism, sexism, and elitism is, it does not take precedence over the educational goal of cultivating people who can think critically. Being a certain kind of person is more important than trying to inculcate specific values, for learning how to think rather than what to think has more of a lasting impact on students. Settled dispositions and skills are seldom forgotten, while particular values, if not learned through rational persuasion, are also easily forgotten. Learning how to think involves learning the rules of logical debate, whereas learning what to think involves coercing students to accept specific conclusions prior to debate. Studying Plato’s Republic fosters thinking skills because its philosophical claims, theories, and style provide ample opportunity for students to engage in logical thinking activities.

Also, the multicultural goal of educating our students to be sensitive members of a diverse world can be approached with an in depth study of the Republic since the Republic is centered around a rational discussion of many relevant social and moral issues, towards which the contemporary interpretive focus on race, class, and gender issues can be turned. Still, instead of censoring the Republic, students will learn by seeing for themselves what is worthwhile in the Republic, while rationally critiquing what is not.

Obviously, this is not to say that there is no theory of critical thinking among the multiculturalists. For example, Peter L. McLaren has a critical pedagogy:

“Critical pedagogy is more than a desacralization of the grand narratives of modernity, but seeks to establish new moral and political frontiers of emancipatory and collective struggle, where both subjugated narratives and new narratives can be written and voiced in the arena of democracy” (1991, 172).

McLaren urges educators to teach students how to critically evaluate oppressive social structures for the express purpose of transforming them into egalitarian structures. According to McLaren, critical pedagogy involves helping students to resist being manipulated by the media, which should be an outcome of any liberal arts education in which the cultivation of thinking skills is an integral part.6 However, “solidarity with the op pressed” and the liberation of “silenced voices” should not imply the elimination or diminution of time spent on Plato’s Republic in the general higher education of our first- and second-year university students. Democratizing social relations is a worthwhile goal perhaps, but unless it is to be believed uncritically, students should be exposed to the mordant criticisms of democracy as demagoguery and mob rule by Plato in Book VIII of the Republic: “[T]he city honors him if only he says that he wishes the crowd well” (Grube 1975, 207). This exposure will help cultivate the socially and politically critical thinkers McLaren seeks with his critical pedagogy, for Plato’s criticisms highlight how a democratic society lends itself to social and political abuses.

The conception of critical thinking I am advocating is logical analysis. By learning how to identify, analyze, evaluate, and construct arguments from analogy, inductive generalizations, syllogisms of all kinds, fallacies, definitions, and functions of language, students are able to think for themselves rather than language, students are able to think for themselves rather than simply believe someone’s authority. Being sensitive to contexts for exercising these skills in debating passages in the Republic does not teach students “correct conclusions,” or what to think, but how to think. The knowledge of forms of valid and invalid reasoning taught in a core course enables the student to both construct and evaluate arguments. These forms are general enough that they can be used in any class, core or major, and the Republic is especially good for practicing this skill. Similarly, reading Plato won’t necessarily make students totalitarian elitists, sexists, or classists, unless the instructor requires them to accept Plato’s conclusions. However, requiring students to accept each other as equals in inherent dignity and value, regardless of gender, race, or economic class is not teaching critical thinking skills – it is indoctrination.

It might be objected that logical analysis is not the best form of critical pedagogy and that egalitarian thinking is better. First of all, there are no general principles for egalitarian thinking beyond the moral principle of respect for the inherent dignity and worth of others, regardless of class, race, or gender. This makes “egalitarian thinking” reducible to a particular moral principle, which, again, no matter how noble the principle is, reduces education to moral indoctrination. Second, a knowledge of the laws of logic is inescapable to university core education, for the law of the excluded middle in logical reasoning is presupposed in any kind of disciplined thinking. For example, even egalitarian thinking cannot avoid it, for the egalitarian argument that non-white males should be read in the core curriculum presupposes the alternative that they should not be read: either they should or they should not be read. Egalitarian thinking is fine as long as the practice of logical discussion is preserved.

In short, some multiculturalists have attacked the study of Plato’s Republic as an essential of general education because of its so-called sexist, racist, and classist views. Traditionalists, however, such as Allen Bloom and Mortimer Adler recommend reading the Republic and other classics because they raise perennial questions and not because they contain perennial truth. Even if there are some falsehoods in the Republic, educating students in how to think critically is not advanced with using a criterion of what to think, even if it is a laudable social and political value such as equality.

Classics, Canon, and Literary Core Criteria

The value of classical learning has been a central assumption of the university curriculum in America since the colonial period. The goal of a multicultural education entails a re-examination of that assumption. Adler’s point about classics implies that they are not books whose truth claims are to be memorized uncritically. Philosophical errors are important, as they point out where human beings can go fundamentally wrong in their struggle with philosophical issues. If Plato has made some errors but has asked some perennial human questions and thought deeply about them, then he should be read. By reading famous works that contain egregious philosophical errors, students not only learn how to think critically about what they read, but they learn to avoid mistakes even famous philosophers failed to avoid.

Allan Bloom has some mixed feelings about the treatment of the classic or “great book” in the contemporary American university. He thinks that whenever students are exposed to the “big questions” in their study of Plato, the Bible, or Shakespeare, they experience a sense of fulfillment with having received something from the university that cannot be obtained anywhere else. They have experienced the joy of learning about themselves and the universe through reading famous books that they know have somehow shaped their lives, for better or for worse. On the other hand, Bloom is disturbed about the preeminence of the natural and social sciences in the university, which in his opinion, threatens the very existence of the humanities. Because the classics either do not contain science or contain obsolete science, they are left to the antiquarians in the humanities. The sole responsibility of scholars in the humanities to study the classics would be acceptable to Bloom if they wrestled with the “big questions” of meaning and identity. However, humanists, for the most part, really have become antiquarians who primarily conduct esoteric research into the foreign language and political circumstances of the original texts, with little or no attempt to relate their scholarship to contemporary issues of general concern. Bloom further laments the prevalence of the current literary fad of deconstruction and its intra-subjective theory of interpretation. Still, he is not entirely happy with the traditional “Great Books” approach to general learning.7

Classics, or “the best that has been thought,” usually constitute a university’s literary canon. A canon is a group of texts that not only helps define a community, but sets limits to what a community can think and do. Think about how the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence perform this function for American lawyers. Moreover, biblical texts have performed this function for Christian communities since the incorporation between 200 and 400 C.E. of early Christian writings into the biblical canon. Well-educated liberal arts college graduates are quite different people from American lawyers and well-versed Christians. Members of the latter two communities are defined and evaluated by their fidelity or lack of fidelity to their foundational texts, but members of the liberally educated community should be defined and evaluated by how well they can think critically about a whole range of issues, but not by their knowledge of specific texts. Numerous texts can contribute to the task of cultivating critical thinking and morally sensitive citizens, and the works of non-white European males should be part of the core, provided they further these goals. However, imposing a canon of required beliefs and values on students does not promote this objective; in fact, it impedes it.

Texts for the core curriculum should be chosen on the basis of three criteria: historical influence, excellent writing style, and whether or not they promote critical thinking and morally sensitive citizenship.8 Let me define “a morally responsible citizen” as “a person who knows his or her duties and is motivated to discharge them out of both a strong sense of community and a strong sense of good-will to all other citizens.” The aim of “common learning” – a phrase from the 1987 study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on under graduate education (Boyer 1987, 100) – should be the cultivation of people capable of sound judgment who understand themselves as responsible members of a community. The main themselves as responsible members of a community. The main reason for this is that the primary function of American formal education is to form people capable of effective self-rule (democracy), which is not possible without responsible citizens who possess an accurate historical self-understanding and the power to reason. A knowledge of historically significant ideas and the ability to write well contribute to forming this kind of person.

It may be objected by at least one multiculturalist that this kind of person expresses a static or essentialist conception of the self, rather than a dynamic and aesthetic conception. But a critical thinker who is also a morally responsible member of the community must be a very dynamic and aesthetic person. Logically analyzing the problems of life, especially the social problem of diversity, is an ever-changing and ever-creative process since the problems of life are ever-changing. Also, learning Bloom’s vituperative rhetoric against the multiculturalists is well known and unfortunate one’s duties to “the Other” involves creative, or aesthetic, activity since living with a diversity of classes, races, sexes, and sexual orientations is a fairly new and pervasive situation, thus calling for imagination in the construction of new ways of relating.

All of Plato’s writings satisfy these conditions. First of all, Plato’s influence in Western culture has been enormous, for he not only vindicated and spread the philosophy of Socrates, but he inspired Aristotle, established organized higher education in the West, and raised most of the philosophical issues we still discuss today. His theory of forms influenced Christian theology, the Socratic method has been adopted as the only permissible method of cross-examination in American courtrooms today, and his ideas on education have had a lasting impact throughout Europe. All well-educated college graduates should be aware of these facts.

Second, if texts were chosen for the core curriculum, in part, on the basis of whether or not their writing styles were worth emulating, then any of Plato’s works would qualify. Plato’s extant works include twenty-six dialogues and thirteen letters, all of which are aesthetically pleasing in their simplicity, elegance, and grace. He does not confuse the reader with technical language; he uses numerous figures of speech, such as analogy, to illustrate his points; and the dramatic element in his style holds the attention of the reader. This kind of lucidity and vitality is worth emulating.

Third, Plato’s works can help develop critical thinkers and morally responsible citizens. Developing morally responsible people need not involve indoctrination if critical thinking is taught as the method of thinking about how to conduct oneself towards others.

First of all, in light of the informal and conversational nature of the genres of the dialogue and letter, it is evident that Plato sought the response of his readers.9 The dialogue form portrays people thinking together on a common issue, and all letters require, by their very nature, a response from their readers. Thus, these literary genres provide the students with models of people conversing with each other about issues of common concern. By requiring a response from readers, Plato’s works encourage us to take responsibility for thinking through the issue for ourselves, which helps encourage critical thinking. It is at this point that multicultural concerns can be raised about making students aware of the extent of, and reasons for, the systematic exclusion of people from the privileges of society based on class, race, and gender.

Second, because each dialogue and letter is a cooperative rational inquiry into such moral topics as the nature of justice, moderation, courage and virtue, the reader can gain an appreciation of the significance of cooperative inquiry in matters of interest to the community. This gives the student and instructor the opportunity to cultivate a sense of moral responsibility to the community, or citizenship. Thus, Plato’s works fulfill this third criterion for inclusion in the core curriculum. In short, canon criteria should center on historically influential works, works with a writing style worth emulating, and works with perennial questions that stimulate students to think because that helps students learn how to think critically. Plato’s Republic fully satisfies these criteria.

The Carnegie Study and Plato’s Republic

The recommendations of the Carnegie study on undergraduate The recommendations of the Carnegie study on undergraduate education reform in the core curriculum focus on neither traditional classics nor contemporary multicultural works. According to this study, the major problem facing general education in American colleges is the lack of integration between courses and between coursework and life. Because neither classics alone nor multicultural works alone help students overcome this problem, they recommend an integrated core of courses that relate the basic issues and ideas of “seven areas of inquiry . . . to experiences common to all people” (Boyer 1987, 92).

These areas include language, art, heritage, institutions, science, work, and identity, which are not to be studied through selecting specific courses that have been approved under standard distribution requirements. Distribution requirements in several disciplines, with a specialization in one, came into the college curriculum at the turn of the twentieth century after the fixed curriculum of classical languages came under fire from academic specialists and industrialists (63-4). The Carnegie study recommends that these seven areas of inquiry be team taught in an inter-disciplinary manner much like the survey and theme courses in the humanities introduced after WWI and WWII. In this way, the goal of unity and integration may be achieved.

Plato’s Republic expresses a certain kind of unity and integration that, if included in the core curriculum, would help reach the goals of the Carnegie study. Almost every issue in every branch of philosophy is discussed throughout the work. There are ten books in the Republic and five traditional branches of philosophy: ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, metaphysics and logic. An ethical issue, such as whether or not the just life is better than the unjust life, is discussed in Books One and Ten. Epistemological issues, such as the nature of knowledge and its relation to correct opinion, are discussed in Book Six. Issues in aesthetics, such as whether or not art should be controlled by the government and the relation between art and reality are discussed in Books Three and Ten, respectively. Notice that questions of aesthetics and ethics (political philosophy in particular) intersect here, which reveals a further unity and integration. Metaphysical questions regarding the relation between appearance and reality are artfully discussed in the famous appearance and reality are artfully discussed in the famous “Allegory of the Cave” in Book Seven, and a proof for the “Allegory of the Cave” in Book Seven, and a proof for the immortality of the soul is offered in Book Ten. Topics in logic, such as forms or patterns of adequate and inadequate reasoning, are exemplified in Plato’s extensive use of both arguments from analogy and “reductio ad absurdum” forms of reasoning throughout the text.10 This integration of logic with the other branches of philosophy reveals a further level of unity and integration within the Republic.

It may be objected by a multiculturalist that unity and integration are not as aesthetically valuable as multiplicity and difference and, in turn, tolerance for various expressions of personal style. Derrida’s writings certainly explore literary expressions that deconstruct classical logocentric unity and integration. But as novel as his style is, his work is usually opaque to the general reader, since it purposely avoids achieving unity and integration, which is usually necessary for literary sense for the general reader or core curriculum student.

The Republic is such a unified work that it expresses and connects the seven areas of inquiry that the Carnegie study recommends for the integrated core. Students can grow in their appreciation of language, art, heritage, institutions, science, work and identity through reading the Republic.

First of all, the “Allegory of the Cave” in Book Seven (514a-521a) and the “Simile of the Divided Line” in Book Six (509d-511d) vividly exemplify the power of symbolic language to communicate subtle ideas.

Second, arts such as music and poetry are central in the educational system of the Republic in Book III (393d-405a) because of their profound role in shaping personal character.

Third, the educational curriculum for the would-be philosopher kings and queens as outlined in Book VII (521a-533a) influenced the formation of the trivium and quadrivium in the Middle Ages, which laid the basis for the modern high school and college curricula. Language studies, an appreciation of the arts, and knowledge of the origins of higher education are top arts, and knowledge of the origins of higher education are topics of inquiry in Plato’s Republic.

Fourth, our Western heritage in theology, politics, and sociology can be traced, in part, to Plato’s Republic. This heritage can be seen in the impact of Plato’s theological ideas in Book II (380c and 381c) on the formation of Church dogma; the impact of his ideas on eugenics in Book V (460a) on the National Socialists during WWII; and the influence of his general belief that knowledge ought to be applied to the transformation of social institutions on Auguste Comte, the father of modern sociology. Ironically, multiculturalists could re-claim Plato here as a precedent for their activist philosophy of education.

Fifth, the “Simile of the Divided Line” reveals Plato’s conception of scientific knowledge, which he thought ought to guide governments and the individual towards living just and noble lives. An exploration of the legacy, for good or bad, bequeathed to Western Culture by the ideas of the past can be facilitated by a study of Plato’s Republic.

Sixth, work is the topic in Book II (369b-372) wherein Socrates asserts and elaborates the idea that the foundation of any city is the division of labor. Moreover, one of his definitions of justice in Book IV (433ab) centers on doing one’s work and doing it well.

Seventh, the “Myth of Er” at the end of Book X (614b 621d) encourages students to ponder their identity and meaning as human beings. The ending of the Republic connects three issues: the opening issue of Book I about whether the just life is the best life (347e-348c); the view of justice in Book IV that the just life of self-control, courage, and wisdom is indeed the best way of life (443d-e); and the vision of eternal reward and punishment. By relating the public life of work to the private life of one’s soul, Plato’s Republic adroitly succeeds in providing an educational opportunity for achieving a sense of unity and integration between courses and the classroom and life.

In short, Plato’s Republic should be taught in a core curriculum even on other core curriculum criteria than traditional or multicultural criteria, such as that of the Carnegie study on undergraduate education. Because of the comprehensive nature of the Republic, studying it can help students connect classroom issues to life issues such as work, institutions, heritage, language, science, art, and identity.

Introductory Philosophical Study and the Republic

Philosophy, like all other liberal arts, has a place in the core, but its place needs clarification. The American Philosophical Association (APA), upon a request from the American Association of Colleges, recently released a study on the philosophy major in American colleges and universities (Audi 1991, 32 45). Course content in the core curriculum and the introductory stages of a major area of concentration, like philosophy, will probably coincide to some extent since they are both concerned with initiating the student into the general problems, methods, and history of the different areas of inquiry. Thus, the goals of first- and second-year philosophy can also be the goals of the core curriculum in philosophy.

This APA-sponsored study on the philosophy major in American universities enumerates five skills that specialists in philosophy ought to acquire in their introductory studies. Introductory work should introduce students to skills necessary for doing philosophy, specifically, the abilities to recognize a philosophical question and grasp a philosophical argument; to read a philosophical text critically; to engage in a philosophical discussion; and to write a philosophical paper that uses skills of interpretation, argument, and library research. (39) According to the authors of this study, emphasis at the introductory level of the philosophy major should not be on surveying all the fields of philosophy but on the acquisition of fundamental skills. A firm foundation makes it easier to do the complex and subtle kinds of thinking expected of specialists in philosophy.

However, a graduate of an excellent core curriculum should also have a solid grounding in the basic issues and methods of philosophy rather than an extensive knowledge of the conclusions of the philosophers. They can take these habits of mind with them into their own specialties, for philosophical skills and attitudes are applicable in most any endeavor. In addition, these capacities should create responsible and thoughtful citizens, which is another goal of a coherent core curriculum. For example, analyzing the arguments for and against ballot issues utilize the philosophical skills and attitudes of argument analysis and open mindedness.

Thus, the relationship between a core curriculum and the major is fundamental for the student. For the core provides foundational skills and knowledge on which specialized skills and knowledge can be built. For example, being able to write coherent paragraphs is a skill that enables the student majoring in any subject to write coherent essays. Also, seminal concepts such as democracy, science, capitalism, and art that are usually discussed in core curriculum courses not only help students to live intelligently sensitive lives but prepare them to understand the major theories based on them in their majors.

The study of Plato’s Republic enhances the possibility of achieving the goals of beginning specialization in philosophy. First of all, Socrates’ cross-examination of Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Thrasymachus raise numerous philosophical issues regarding the good life, the nature of justice and knowledge, and the role of the arts in education. Responsible and thoughtful citizens in a democratic republic need to be able to understand these issues in order to participate fully in political life. Likewise, these issues open up several branches of philosophy to the future specialist.

Second, Socrates’ cross-examinations can be summarized in “reductio ad absurdum” arguments, arguments from analogy, and hypothetical syllogisms, which are general forms of reasoning that are used in all disciplines, worlds of work, personal reflection and political deliberations. A person with a broad liberal arts education needs to know these patterns of reasoning in order to be an intelligent member of any community. Similarly, the beginning specialist in philosophy must develop the ability to think of counter-examples, to infer consequences of claims, and draw analogies in order to detect possible defects in written or spoken reasoning that may, otherwise, lead him or her to accept errors as truth.

Third, reading a seminal philosophical text in translation not only gives the general education student the opportunity to read something challenging, but it gives the beginning specialist in philosophy the opportunity to imitate the thought processes of a leader in his or her field. Plato’s Republic is an example of a seminal work. In some ways, because of its emphasis on dialogue, and the fact that Habermas has brought hermeneutical dialogue to the center of philosophical studies today, it can function as a contemporary model for learning how to do philosophical thinking for the generalist or the specialist. In learning to read critically, one needs to be able to identify and evaluate central claims and arguments, and Plato’s Republic furnishes ample opportunities for a proficient instructor to work on this skill. For example, the discussion of family issues in Book V (457d-462c) – such as marriage, infanticide, eugenics, and incest – can draw even the most apathetic reader into the discussion. Reading and discussing these issues is important for anybody, inasmuch as these are human issues, and no core curriculum that focuses on the skills and knowledge that will enable its graduates rationally to deal with the wide range of human issues will want to avoid family issues.

Fourth, learning how to engage in philosophical dialogue is a skill with ramifications in virtually every area of the core graduate’s life. With the rise of the “global village,” by way of economic and technological connections, the well-educated person of the twenty-first century must be able to communicate with people of all different races, creeds, and sexes. Ironically, multi-cultural issues are raised in Plato’s Republic regarding how to treat people of different races (470b-d), different creeds (489d 493d), and different sexes (455c-457c). Since his views are non-relativistic, while most students today are extreme relativists, his views are bound to engage even the most apathetic student in discussion. Even if the students rejected every single conclusion of Plato’s on these subjects – and they usually do – it would be better for them to reject them after rational discussion than to not be exposed to them. Developing reasons for rejecting his “us-them” view of the Greeks and the non-Greeks, for example, develops critical thinking abilities and possibly an egalitarian attitude.

The global scene in philosophy today requires that specialists in philosophy learn how to participate in philosophical discussions with logical acumen, creative ideas, and mutual respect. Gadamer (1975) advises philosophers to be open to each other in living dialogue. It seems to me that my own contribution is the discovery that no conceptual language, not even what Heidegger called the “language of metaphysics,” represents an unbreakable constraint upon thought if only the thinker allows himself to trust language; that is, if he engages in dialogue with other thinkers and other ways of thinking. Dialogue with other thinkers and other ways of thinking. (23)

Reading Plato’s Republic facilitates dialogue among both general education students and specialists in philosophy by presenting a highly questionable way of thinking about the “non-Greek,” i.e., “the Other.” Not all contemporary American university students of the Republic are of Greek ethnicity, and yet they do not consider themselves to be of less value and dignity as human beings than Greeks. Therefore, for example, this position in the Republic can lead to the view that American minorities are not necessarily of inferior worth and value to American white males. Analogies between Plato’s way of thinking about non-Greeks and the way of thinking about women, for example, as expressed in their relative absence in positions of power in corporate America, the U.S. Senate, and the professoriate can also help promote a respect for “the Other.”

Fifth, a student’s powers of interpretation and argumentation can be cultivated through a careful reading of the Republic.11 The famous passage of the “Allegory of the Cave” provides a very enjoyable opportunity for exercising one’s interpretative skills. Does the cave merely symbolize the lack of wisdom in the unphilosophical mind? Or, could it represent the lack of understanding that results from personal, cultural, and even historical prejudices? Questions of criteria and procedures for interpretation can also be raised here when students are confronted with several plausible interpretations in class. Is the meaning of the Allegory in Plato’s intention? Or, is it in the historical forces that brought the Republic into being? Or, is it in the influence the work has exerted over the centuries? Plato’s poetic and dramatic style, throughout the entire dialogue, provide countless opportunities for raising questions of interpretation.12

By following Socrates’ cross-examination of Thrasymachus, for example, on the latter’s definition of “justice” as the advantage of the stronger, a thoughtful student can learn a lot about how to ask a series of logical questions. This skill can be used by the specialist in philosophy or the liberal arts graduate in any context in which a series of questions is required. The student can also learn a lot about irrational argumentation and debate by taking note of the fact that the Sophist Thrasymachus employs the debater’s technique of ridiculing an opponent in order to avoid accepting a conclusion (343a). A genuine truth-seeker in any field will try to refrain from such tactics, for they only tend to promote victory in argumentation and debate, instead of tending to promote mutual understanding and personal growth.

In short, Plato’s Republic amply satisfies APA criteria for first- and second-year university study in philosophy. Therefore, the Republic deserves a place in any literary core curriculum that includes philosophy.

There are objections that might be raised to an in-depth study of Plato’s Republic in the core curriculum other than the multiculturalist objections regarding its sexist ideas. For instance, someone might object that it is an anti-democratic work, and thus does not help in teaching American college students the value of democratic freedoms.13 Someone else might object that it does not correctly appraise the value of science, since, for Plato, science is only a preparation for dialectics (philosophical discussion) and the vision of the Good. Science, for Plato, was not an important as philosophical dialectics. Thus, the Republic militates against the current goal of improving science education in America.

Just as the multiculturalist objections have some truth to them, so these objections have some truth to them, but Plato’s views on democracy and science are just as nuanced as are his views on women, social status, and non-Greeks. All freedom has its limits and dangers, and in order for students to truly understand the value of democratic freedoms, its limits and dangers must be studied. For example, the influence of money on political power through financial contributions to political campaigns is a grave danger in a representative democracy. Moreover, not recognizing differences between people in terms of accomplishment and contribution is another danger in too much egalitarian thinking. Democratic freedom of thought may imply the freedom to believe as one pleases, but that does not imply that every opinion is equally valid. Students many times think that it does, though, but they need to learn that political freedom of thought does not entail that all thoughts are true. Statements are true when they conform to the com mon standards of logic and direct observation. Finally, if democracy really is the best form of government, the case for it will stand up under rational scrutiny, for the truth has nothing to fear.

It is true that Plato did not place the mathematical and empirical sciences at the pinnacle of higher education. According to Plato, the sciences were based in unexamined assumptions and models of reality rather than on reality itself (511c). Also, they were only one ingredient, albeit a significant one, in a society’s educational process of turning the soul towards union with The Good (540a): the moral and intellectual perfections of moderation, courage, wisdom, and justice. This estimate of math and science is not consistent with the President’s Goals 2000 plan that values math and science more than the moral and intellectual virtues. Of course, Plato’s philosophy of science and his philosophy of education are based in his metaphysical theory of The Forms and his conception of Dialectic (reasoned discourse about assumptions), neither of which are self-evidently true. Here again, though, if American educators insulate their students from politically incorrect, yet significant, views of math and science, students will be the victims of stultifying indoctrination instead of the recipients of a liberating education.

In short, the place of Plato’s Republic in the core curriculum has been seriously challenged by multiculturalists, but their criticisms are not entirely justified. It is true that there are some sexist, elitist, and classist views in the Republic, and works by women and people of color should be part of the core curriculum. However, both Boyer and Audi corroborate my contention that the criteria for inclusion in the literary core curriculum should not be principally based on the extent to which a work contributes to the reduction or eradication of these demeaning attitudes. The criteria should be based in these demeaning attitudes. The criteria should be based in the extent to which a literary work liberates the student to think for him/herself; the extent to which a work helps students integrate knowledge with life; and the extent to which a work initiates the student into the necessary skills for future specialization. Learning how to think gives students a skill that lasts longer than learning what to think. Clearly, Plato’s Republic provides ample opportunity for the cultivation of the intellectual skills and moral virtues that are necessary for thoughtful and responsible citizenship in the twenty-first century.



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1. There is some ambiguity about the exact content of the current reading list at Stanford in 1995. Raoul V. Mowatt, former managing editor of the Stanford Daily, recently reported that when he was a core curriculum student at Stanford, students in six of the eight “Culture, Ideas, and Values” courses read a significant number of passages from Plato (Mowatt 130). Also, “Margaret,” a Stanford “CIV” representative, reported to me on January 18, 1995 by telephone that students in “eight of the nine “CIV” tracks” read a significant number of passages from Plato’s Republic now. My hunch is that the Wall Street Journal report was true about some, if not all, sections of the “CIV” course when it was published in 1988, but the course content has changed since then.

2. I. . . Rigoberto Menchu, for example, is on the new reading list and is about a South American woman’s journey from poverty to feminism and Marxism. Other authors include Chungara de Barrio and Garcia Marquez (Stone 364).

3. D’Souza reports that some campuses, such as the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, require sensitivity workshops for students who express derogatory views of women, minorities, or homosexuals (D’Souza 1991, 8-12).

4. John R. Searle avers that the movement of deconstruction has led some multiculturalists to abandon some traditional academic values, such as the intellectual standards of logic and direct observation (Searle 1995, 36).

5. Some scholars argue that Bloom and Adler are also open to the criticisms of elitism, classism and sexism. Christian Pierce focuses on the fact that Bloom tries to explain away the presence of women in the guardian class by arguing that they were there only to reproduce guardians (Bloom 1968 and Pierce 1973, 8-10, Republic 383). Similarly, Martin Kaplan thinks that Adler’s Great Books program is somewhat elitist (Kaplan 1982, 3-12).

6. Henry A. Giroux’s ideas about the decentering of essentialist claims to power agree with McLaren’s ideas about critical pedagogy (Giroux 1991, 252). Both have been deeply influenced by Paulo Freire’s ideas about education as preparation for social and political transformation.

7. Before Bloom’s recent death, he was critical of Adler’s Great Books programs at St. Johns University because, in his view, it is “amateurish” and “evangelistic” (Bloom 1987, 344). Adler’s response to Bloom is justified in that Bloom either did not know the history of the “Great Books” program or did not really understand it. Because they called each other “elitist” with hostile feelings on each side, the personal dimension of their relationship took precedence over the conceptual relationship between their views on the significance of an education in the classics. Ultimately, if they were to have talked dispassionately about their views on the place of the classic in a college education, my hunch is they would have seen that they had very similar views (Lyon 1987, 113-119)

8. Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale, develops the criterion of strangeness, or profound uniqueness, as his criterion for canon inclusion (Bloom 1995, 4).

9. Diskin Clay and Rosemary Desjardins, contemporary philosophers and classicists, corroborate this conclusion.

10. I say “exemplified” rather than “discussed” because logic, as the science of argument forms, owes its existence to Aristotle, Plato’s most famous pupil. Plato did not discourse on argument forms, but I would maintain that Aristotle, in part, abstracted the argument forms of logic by analyzing Plato’s Dialogues. Aristotle was thoroughly familiar with Plato’s writings; numerous points of logic are exemplified in Plato’s writings, and Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, gives credit to Socrates for contributions to logic.

11. Learning to write a research paper should be a fundamental goal of any core curriculum, and the APA is correct that it should be an important part of introductory studies in philosophy for specialists. Since there are two thousand years of scholarly commentary on Plato’s Republic, there is no shortage of secondary literature on it in the libraries for student research papers. the libraries for student research papers.

12. James Arieti directs our attention to the dramatic use of arguments by characters in Plato’s dialogues (Arieti 1991, 231-246). Arieti intriguingly theorizes that Plato’s dialogues may have been used as advertisements of the type of education young men and women could receive in Athens at Plato’s Academy

13. Of course, in the 1940s, Sir Karl Popper advanced similar objections to Plato’s so called totalitarian views in the Republic.


Also available are “Learning Goals and Teaching Methods for Exploring the Republic,” “Writing Exercises and the Republic,” “The Philosopher as Citizen,” and “Moral Conduct and Citizenship.”

This article was originally published with the same title in The Journal of General Education, Vol. 44, No. 4 (1995), 234-255.

Jon Avery

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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).