The political value of modesty

Ancient criticisms of over-educated elitists can show us how to heal our divided democracies.

Print of arguments in fifth century Athens.
Print of arguments in fifth century Athens. Credit: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

One often hears today that creating better-educated citizens is the solution to many of our democracies’ problems. But what kind of education makes people better self-rulers?

Some democratic educators stress the need to teach pupils how governments work, in their own country and perhaps in others. Others want to foster open-mindedness, tolerance, and attitudes that make it easier to share public space. Many say that democracy’s schools should aim to train citizens to think for themselves, so that even if they know little about climate science, viruses, or world trade, they are still confident enough to ask relevant questions about how leaders propose to deal with these matters.

If someone could devise a form of education that produced such citizens in every democracy, popular self-government would deserve more praise than it often gets today. But as soon as one starts thinking about this dream, it’s clear why it is so hard to realise.

Consider how most people today think about education. We treat school or college diplomas as tickets to success. When someone desires knowledge for its own sake, they don’t mind how long it takes to go out hunting for it, but plod patiently forward and backward, admitting mistakes and staring at blank walls until they muster the courage to try again. When people seek knowledge not for its own sake but because it helps them find employment or make a good impression, they are in a greater hurry, seeking education that crams their heads with useful knowledge as swiftly as possible. Or – just as importantly – they think of education as a way to make contacts with teachers who will help them or their offspring get into universities.

There’s nothing new about the dream of purchasing knowledge to foster a good reputation and improve your station in life. Plato reproaches the men he calls sophistes – which translates roughly as ‘the so-called wise’ – for selling their so-called wisdom to any buyer who could afford their fees. Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds features a desperate father who wants to find a sophist to educate his son, for the lad’s mother fancies herself upper class and wants him to do something a bit grander than waste countless drachmas on horse-races. None of the characters has the faintest idea what sophists actually teach, and they don’t care. All that matters is forking out good money for highbrow education, because this has come to signify elite status in Athens’ proudly egalitarian democracy.

Aristophanes’ characters and their anxieties are entirely recognisable today. These days a university education is akin to a ticket for a flight to success that cannot fit everyone on board. To get a seat, you or your children have to stay up day and night taking online classes with professors in far-flung time zones, filling out forms, writing little show-pieces, and poring over handbooks that teach you how to mimic past winners of this global contest.

At first glance, it’s not obvious why these ways of thinking about education should clash with democracy’s needs for better-educated people. Even if the wish to beat the competition in a brutal global job market is what drives people to study hard, along the way they might also pick up some facts and critical thinking skills that also make them better citizens.

The problem, though, is that the competitive and elitist attitudes that dominate so much thinking about education work against democracy. In democracies, education is supposed to be the great leveller, one of the main providers of equal opportunities to clever and hardworking people of all backgrounds. But in practice, both the providers and consumers of education turn it into a resource that sets some far above others. And while a good education might make some people wealthy, wealthy people can also buy a good education. Securing highly-ranked schooling, they also secure unequal access to many other goods. Soon other citizens come to believe that elite institutions produce wiser people, thinking anyone who studied there must deserve a larger portion of power. And those who studied less, or in places of more moderate repute, trust their own brains less than democracies need them to.

All this raises doubts that our existing schools and universities can help people become better at democratic self-government. On the contrary, today’s hierarchical attitudes in matters of education can make people less well equipped for democratic self-rule, not more. It might be better to imitate a kind of ancient Greek education, that of Socrates, who deliberately opposed the sophists’ ‘training for success’ model. In Plato’s Meno, one of Socrates’ interlocutors grows annoyed with the philosopher for making him rethink cherished opinions. But ‘it’s not,’ Socrates explains, ‘from any great confidence in myself that I cause others to doubt.’ On the contrary, ‘it is from being more in more doubt than anyone else that I cause doubt in others.’

Socrates suffers from epistemic modesty. His irritating questions push no agenda other than to show his conversation partners why modesty makes intellectual sense. It also makes political sense, because the only way to get equals who frequently disagree to talk to each other is for both sides, however highly schooled, to admit their own limits. So while Socrates says in the Meno that he has ‘no idea what virtue is,’ and suspects his interlocutor is also equally confused, he continues, ‘nonetheless I am willing to join you in examining it and enquiring into its nature.’

Socrates’ modesty is a virtue worth reviving in today’s quarrelsome democracies. When wars of opinion heat up, many people see their advanced degree certificates as weapons that help them monopolise truth and the moral high ground. The deeper truth may be that their opponents insist on their contrary opinions as counter-weapons in struggles to hold onto their fair share of democratic power. If someone could devise a system of education that takes the sting out of these partisan struggles, they would deserve high praise indeed.


Erica Benner