[FOUNTAIN]Elitist ideas have a very long history

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[FOUNTAIN]Elitist ideas have a very long history

Twenty-four centuries ago, in a harsh time and place, Plato dreamed of an ideal society. The “golden age of Pericles,” the pinnacle of the ancient democracy, had just ended in Athens. After Pericles died, the city-state fell into the chaos of mob rule. In 404 B.C., the Athenians surrendered to the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. Five years later, Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was sentenced to death.
“The Republic” is the ideal society ― a utopia, to use a term that would be coined many centuries later ―that Plato imagined as he watched Athens fall. The original Greek title is “Politeia,” meaning the ideal form of a polis, or city-state.
“The Republic” categorized people into three classes. Those with great gifts of reason became the ruling class of philosopher-kings, and those with strong wills made up the military class. The rest of the people, more swayed by human desire and less capable of self-control, become the common, producing class.
Gifted children would receive special education, studying Greek mythology, music, physical education, mathematics and astronomy. The most able group from this pool would practice dialectic understanding and study philosophy, and when they passed the age of 50, would take their turn governing. So that they would not be swayed by personal interests, the ruling class shared property and families. The intellectual elite were the chosen ones.
“The Republic” is the extreme of elitist political philosophy. It is based on the theory that people are born with different gifts and qualities. Plato thought societies ruled by incompetent leaders could not realize justice. So that a harmonious society and the happiness of the greatest number could be attained, only the most able men would govern. Ironically, Sparta was an elitist state. Sickly babies were abandoned; soldiers began military training at age 7, and had to serve until 60. An army of elites had destroyed Athens.
Plato’s ideal state has never existed, but elitism has been an axiom of Western philosophy for over two millennia. The philosophical background of the West emphasizes elite education. Because everyone is bound to inherit a different set of qualities, Plato’s ideal is still effective. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Education and Human Resources’ elite education plan is regrettable. Equal opportunity is the most important thing.

by Oh Byung-sang

The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo’s London correspondent.
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