Ancient and modern

Plato knew that home-schooling can have benefits

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

Education is cumulative. The idea that it will be lost on a generation because, for one out of 42 terms of schooling, pupils will have to take more responsibility for their own learning, is obvious tosh. Indeed that term may yield considerable benefits for all, especially older, pupils, whatever their future plans. Let Plato explain.

Plato’s Seventh Letter (its authenticity has been doubted) deals with his failed efforts to turn Sicily into a Platonic state. Greeks had settled there from about 750 bc, and in the 4th century bc Plato was invited to help turn the apparently willing tyrant Dionysius II into a philosopher king. Plato went over there, but found the court riddled with intrigue. He managed to extricate himself, but in 361 bc was reluctantly persuaded to give it a second go.


He decided to lay out his cards in full by confronting Dionysius with the ‘nature of the subject, the stages that must be gone through and the effort required’. His response would indicate whether he had the ‘divine spark’ required by philosophy, such that life was worth living only if a man could pursue it till he reached his goal, with or without his mentor’s help.

Plato then contrasted this approach with that of those unsuited to study who, when faced with the labour and learning that was to be required of them, preferred ‘getting a superficial veneer, like the tan men get by exposing themselves to the sun’. ‘This, then,’ Plato concluded, ‘is the clearest and safest test to apply to those who like soft living and are incapable of hard work. It has the added advantage that the pupil has only himself to blame if he cannot keep up, and his guide is absolved from responsibility.’ Dionysius failed the test hopelessly.

The challenge of learning outside school is that the pupil will be, like Dionysius, much more on his or her own. For all pupils, it could encourage self-motivation. It could confront older ones with the vital question: without all the usual support mechanisms, does one still have that ‘divine spark’ for one’s chosen subjects? Or is that spark lit by pursuits other than educational?

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