09/13/2010 05:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reading Plato With Columbia Students

Last week over 1,000 sophomores began the annual Columbia University ritual of reading the greats of philosophy, from Plato to the present.

The Columbia course Contemporary Civilization, the center of its undergraduate Core Curriculum, has been controversial since its inception as a War and Peace issues course in 1919. Its founders reasoned that if graduates were schooled in the conceptual bases under-girding Western thought and possessed the skills to analyze complex ideas and arguments, their rational judgment would help ensure social and political stability when they assumed positions of power after graduation. Such grounding would do nothing less than prevent another catastrophe as horrific as the recently ended Great War. The name of the committed internationalist Nicholas Murray Butler, then President of the University, graces Columbia's main university library, above which range names students will come to know well by graduation: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, Virgil.

That's a lot of dead white men - as many have pointed out in recent decades.

The Core has survived criticism of the validity of the "canon" it presents (Rachel Donandio of the New York Times and Prof. Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books have provided analytical overviews), has been the object of reflection by New Yorker writer David Denby, and continues both to excite and vex Columbia students. Today the "Core Curriculum" includes Literature Humanities - Lit Hum to students - and courses in Music, Art and Science. Students are led though this mass of information by Faculty and a handful of carefully selected final stage doctoral candidates.

This year I'm one of those doctoral candidates.

I faced my first CC class last week armed with the names of my 20 students and a heavily annotated copy of Plato's Republic. The course begins with the Republic because - as Princeton Professor Alexander Nehamas recently demonstrated - it raises almost every question about justice, governance, society, aesthetics and culture students will confront throughout the year.

For those who did not go through a Great Books course themselves, the Republic aims to do nothing less than present a program for the ideal city, or kallipolis. In the kallipolis all experience true justice by performing their ideal functions. Some people are naturally farmers. Traces of iron and bronze course through their bodies, and justice dictates they will live a life as farmers. Above them stands an auxiliary class composed of silver. Then there exists a third group, those born strongest and wisest: the natural philosophers. This last group, the golden, should form the city's guardian class.

But herein lies a great tension of the text. Plato calls his metaphor of the elements "the Noble Lie." He absents himself from the text, instead sourcing the book's ideas to his mentor, Socrates.

Did Plato really believe what he advocated?

I shelve the question of the text's ambivalence for now. Never assume students have done the reading on the first day of semester. With this in mind, I begin my first class with an easy question.

"Aren't you all, as members of the ivy league and future employees of elite institutions, members of America's guardian class?"

Some students vehemently disagree. They seem to conflate the term "Guardian" automatically with "aristocrat" and unearned privilege. Everyone here had worked away their adolescence get to this room. They had earned the right to be there.

Is the promise of unmediated meritocracy the American equivalent of the Noble Lie?

Day two we steer away from civics and head straight for the text itself. Plato spends a great deal of time explaining how we might identify who was born to be a guardian, who a merchant, who a farmer. He then proposes a proper course of education for the guardian class.

Guardians must possess "philosophy, spirit, speed and strength." To inculcate these traits Plato prescribes a program many today would consider totalitarian. Potential guardians should never be exposed to lies. They will embody pure virtue only if they have been exposed to pure virtue. The must undergo rigorous physical training. They must be schooled in geometry and logic. They must never hear any suggestion that the Gods possess weakness. The poetry, music, and stories read to them from childhood should thus be carefully censored, the derivative or superfluously luxurious weeded out.

What is the ideal education for today's guardian class? CC offers students the space to think through this question, suggesting as tools Plato, Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran. And that's just what we're reading before the Autumn midterm.

It's going to be an interesting year.