I see Danielle Allen’s proposal as a form of inverted Platonism. Plato dismissed democracies as ships of fools, steered by ignorant sailors instead of a wise captain. By contrast, Allen wants a system of education that produces wise sailors—or, to borrow another metaphor from Hannah Arendt, one that equips citizens with the architectonic skills they need to co-create the social world. Such citizens have a well-founded view about how “to secure collective safety and happiness,” in light of which they judge their government and reform or even replace it if it fails to do its job. The approach is bottom-up: good politics don’t depend on a philosopher-king. Rather, properly trained citizens ensure that the wrong politicians won’t get elected.
I am sympathetic to this proposal, which democratizes a version of the Platonic link between education and good politics. But there are certain aspects of Allen’s proposals that I think should be reconsidered or strengthened.
Philosophy should have a foundational role in the curriculum.
First, while it is helpful to distinguish between a vocational education that prepares citizens for the labor market and a civic education that equips them to become architects of the social world, I am not convinced that this distinction can be mapped directly onto the division between STEM and liberal arts. Surely no citizen today can participate in building the social world without solid knowledge of the natural sciences and technology. Math, in turn, can be excellent training for analyzing complex problems and making sound arguments—both key skills in the political debates that Allen thinks citizens should engage in. Conversely, as Allen herself points out, the liberal arts can be taught in ways that promote oppression—patriarchy, slavery, racism. Dictatorships do not remove history and literature from schools but put them in service of indoctrination. What matters is the purpose with which disciplines are taught: both STEM and the liberal arts can empower citizens to carry out the “intellectual labor” that, on Allen’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, is expected of them.
Second, Allen mentions philosophy as one among many liberal arts disciplines that should be taught as part of civic education. I would go further: for many reasons, a certain form of philosophy should have a foundational role in the curriculum. For one thing, it grounds Allen’s concept of citizenship; before we can shift frames and fight for social change, we must get clear on our values. Moreover, the cultural narratives of history, religion, and literature should and will be contested in pluralistic democracies, so we need some way to make sense of those debates. Finally, we have much less confidence than Plato in our ability to grasp the collective good once and for all. We expect wise sailors not only to be able to steer the ship, but also to renegotiate its course.
Productive deliberation and debate in all of these realms requires philosophical training. Of course philosophy is itself a contested cultural narrative, but the public philosophy I have in mind is neither history of philosophy nor a specific philosophical discipline or theory such as metaphysics or Marxism. What I mean is philosophy as practice: semantic and logical tools that allow us to argue well and dialectical virtues that allow us to focus on truth-finding rather than on winning an argument. These virtues also help us to manage anxiety, frustration, and other emotions that flare when our convictions are questioned.
Such techniques and virtues are not tied to a specific agenda: they can be used to argue for or against God, for or against fossil fuels, and so on. In this sense they ground the moral, cultural, and political debates that citizens engage in. The Brazilian parliament got it right, I think, when, in 2008, it affirmed that philosophy is necessary for democratic citizenship. Now, by law, every student studies philosophy in that country’s high schools.