What's Wrong with Teaching Plato?

There was an article in the New York Times I read a few weeks ago which talks about a new push on college campuses to teach a more conservative platform because of the conservative loss on college campuses after the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Specifically, they want to include “the teaching of Western culture and a triumphal interpretation of American history.” In essence, there are these privately funded conservative programs attempting to include Freshmen readers or other courses that “retake education” from the crazy liberal left. These readers include some of the Western greats: Descartes, Plato, Dr. King. But in essence, the idea is to teach the foundations of American democracy in a positive, rather than negative, light.

The article included interviews from professors who were, at first, quite hesitant about this. The article quotes: “At first some faculty members were suspicious of where the idea and financing had come from, said Robert Sackett, a history professor who publicly voiced his concern. Yet he added, whatever the back story, who could object to teaching Dr. King or Plato?”

Indeed, what is wrong with teaching Plato? In fact, it is staggering how many people my age think that Plato is a children’s toy, have never heard of Dante’s Inferno, or believe that Germany won WWI (even if you don’t know anything about history, you would THINK it would be common knowledge that it is a safe assumption to say that Germany didn’t win). But this is not about my frustration with the lack of knowledge among American college students. What is more important here is, why is teaching Plato a conservative backlash? Is there anything fundamentally wrong with this?

To connect this to China (and my research) I have been recently reading textbooks published between 1933 -39 about “being a good citizen” (好公民). These included lessons on everything from washing hands after going to the bathroom, being respectful to parents, standing in line quietly at school, eating a lot of fruit, etc. One textbook even included a 90 minute lesson on posture (I’m still unclear how a teacher could have spent 90 minutes teaching children the importance of sitting up straight). Perhaps this is my Western mindset, but when I read the textbook title 新公民[1]I immediately thought of propaganda. And some of the textbook included more obvious propaganda, such as the importance of bowing to the party flag. But is there really anything about teaching posture or hygiene that screams propaganda? What are the deeper meanings behind this?

If we look at other historians, we can see that much of creating the “modern citizen” was based around behavioral control. Robert Culp’s Articulating Citizenship talks about the Nationalist’s control of time, space and behavior; he even includes examples of student organizations meant to control behavior and hygiene (imagine a student organization today that made sure children showered every day). Even earlier, we have reformers claiming that the best way to reform China is to reform people and behavior. This included everything from clothing and greetings (see Harrison’s Making of the Republican Citizen) to male/female relationships (let’s kiss in public for the good of the country!). Ruth Rogawski’s Hygienic Modernity delves deeply into this, claiming that the use of Western hygiene determined how “modern” a person was. I could go on and on with these examples. At the same time, individuals were often considered microcosms of the nation. If individuals were modern in their hygiene, clothing, and behavior, then the country was modern. This is one of the reasons Japan was higher up on the scale, and one of the ways the Japanese legitimized their colonization (see Ming-Cheng Lo Doctors Within Borders ).

So ultimately, this kind of behavioral control was a way for society, and in this case government, to create the ideal citizen. If we act and dress like Westerners, we will be a modern nation. We no longer want to be feudal and backwards.  There may be nothing wrong with teaching posture or hygiene, but it is important to realize the more subtle meanings and implications behind them.

Perhaps it is a stretch to compare this to the New York Times article; I just found the similarities striking. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with teaching Plato or Dr. King; in fact, I find it imperative that people my age know the fundamentals of Western thought. But before we jump on this bandwagon, the more subtle implications should be realized. Rather than teaching Kipling’s book about the horrors of capitalism, we teach these writers who, in a broad sense, glorify the American system. Plato doesn’t necessarily HAVE to be a celebration of American democracy, but from the article, it seems that is the ultimate goal: to teach college students that America is the ultimate realization of this fantastic system. I’m not sure how I feel about a more pro-America or anti-America agenda in college classes (although I don’t particularly like those terms, they are pretty loaded). I think both are important. We can’t hide what capitalism has done to many countries around the world, and we can’t hide our hypocrisy abroad. But I have undergrad papers where professors forced students to write about how capitalism is the ultimate evil that has spawned all the world’s woes. Certainly, high school student get enough of the glorification of America, and college is where students begin to discover “hey, America has done some not so admirable things…”

But does this mean we shouldn’t teach Plato? Or good posture and hygiene for that matter? I’m not sure.

[1]青番江。 新公民 上海:上海中华 书局。1935Other textbooks used include, 魏志澄,赵景源。好公民。上海: 上海商务书局,1933;王创星。 常识课本。世界书局印行, 1934 to name a few.


  1. A number of years ago ED Hirsch wrote Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Houghton Mifflin, 1987), which was perceived as the sort of conservative backlash you mention. But Hirsch maintained that he was a liberal trying to promote general knowledge to make citizens who could influence politics.

    BTW, The Core Knowledge Foundation, has developed a base curriculum for k-12 schools. Great idea, but it turns out that the only piece of fiction dealing with China is… ok, you guessed it, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth.

  2. It’s a thin line, I think…however, what got the headline in the NYT, the protector of all things liberal, was that a lot of these curricula were being funded by politically conservative groups.

    And as for the base curriculum, I’m not surprised. However, considering what most k-12 kids learn about China in school,anything is a step up from nothing.

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