Keep your heart with all vigilance,

for from it flow the springs of life.

Aristocracy

It may seem odd at first to consider the form of governance best suited for the classroom. When two or more persons gather around a common endeavour, there needs to be some way for the pair or group to make decisions. While group consensus might be ideal, it isn't efficient; two persons will not agree on every detail. Hence, a need to resolve the stalemate through some means or method.

Discussions about the 'forms of government - the choices open, the ideals to be sought, or the evils to be remedied - have shifted with the times' and have bled into schools and classrooms as well. Particularly on the ideal power structure and balance between the teacher and the student. One can't help but wonder if the criticism against schools and the education system, along with the affirmation of freedom and choice of the student takes inspiration from the change in the socio-political landscape.

A common method to distinguish the forms of government is to look at the numbers involved - rule by one, some or all. According to Hegel, this form to distinction is superficial because:

It fails to distinguish monarchy from tyranny or despotism, which may consist of rule by one man. [...] Number alone likewise fails to distinguish aristocracy from oligarchy. 

Many great men of antiquity who have responded with additional or alternative criterion to distinguish the various forms of government. Plato adds in the presence or absence of law while Aristotle adds the criterion of virtue and competency - the ruler or rulers are the best in either or both.

The presence of just laws along with competent and virtuous men is what distinguishes the ideal from the dreadful forms of government:

  • monarchy vs. tyranny
  • aristocracy vs. oligarchy
  • democracy vs. mobocracy

Shifting power to the student to decide on curriculum, pedagogy and assessment is a superficial change - a change in numbers. In the absence of law how can a learner educate the mind to be free from prejudice and bias? How will the learner obtain the competency and virtues necessary to decide on the best education when it is the very means to obtain either? Instead of a democratic revolution, education descends into mob learning - a kind that is dictated by the passions of the individual. Part of a complete education is to learn what we do not want, like or even hate.

While both teacher and student are equal in kind, they are also unequal in degree - skill, knowledge, abilities and virtue. It is on this basis that Aristotle and Plato justify the right of men with superior ability to govern or rule. Despite postmodernist attitudes, we still see the need for the 'knowledgeable' other; for students to be overseen by another who is more mature and wise. If adults and seasoned professionals still yearn for mentors and coaches whom they can learn under, why not children and students?

However, there is validity in the criticisms against a system that has placed emphasis on the teacher and ignored the uniqueness and value of the student. Neither do teachers nor institutions lead with virtue and talent. And it is unfortunate we've had to endure one too many. The natural reaction is to shift the power towards students but it isn't better as virtue and talent are equally lacking among them. No matter the balance and structure, the key problem is identifying those with virtues and talents in which current methods - examinations, interviews, tests - are imperfect.

Although it is clear that both extremes are to be avoided, to focus our inquiry on the best balance and structure of power between teacher and student is to place the cart before the horse. We can balance a seesaw because earth and its gravity serves as our reference. If it isn't level to ground we stand on, it isn't balance. Now imagine trying to balance a seesaw in empty space. There is no balance to speak of because there is no point of reference.

The endless debates and arguments over the education system are pointless in the absence of truth: What is the ideal that all should aspire towards? All discussions should begin first with the pursuit of what is truly good, what every person ought to be. Unfortunately, it seems that the ongoing conversation mainly revolves around what every person will do - for economic survival.

Reference: Adler, Mortimer J., The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought, Chapter 3: Aristocracy

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