Peter Cresswell
Peter Cresswell

Guest Editorial: Athens v Sparta

The purposeful, disciplined use of intelligence is the highest achievement possible to man: it is that which makes him human. The higher the skill, the earlier in life its learning should be started…Just as the child is the father of the man, so the nursery school is the father to the university.

Ayn Rand

It is our minds that make us distinctly human. It is our very means of survival, & our chief glory; it is the human mind that is responsible for a Beethoven symphony, a Shakespearean sonnet, an Aristotelian treatise (& the glories of dark ale & red wine). As a bird teaches its young to fly, & a lioness her cubs to hunt, so too must we humans teach our infants to think - to use the mind they are born with.

Teaching is not necessarily schooling we must note, but it is generally to schools that we send our children to learn. Historically, there has always been an uneasy tension between public & private schools, & between authoritarian – often religious -- schools & others of a more relaxed, or secular outlook.

This tension was first felt in classical Greece, between the very different societies of Athens & Sparta. Athenians enjoyed schools run as private enterprises, with parents free to choose among available teachers at a price they could afford. That it was successful in producing the first flowering of a truly human civilisation can be judged by the literature, art, science & philosophy that we still enjoy & learn from today.

The Spartan model was very different; here was big brother in the classroom writ large. Schools were ‘educational boot camps’ -- with all that implied about the Spartan way of life – their task to produce warriors, automatons, to follow orders & serve the state "as one herd". As one writer notes: ‘every aspect of child rearing which in Athens was the right & responsibility of parents, was in Sparta the prerogative of the govt." Unlike Athenian culture, we do not today enjoy the cultural outpouring of Sparta for one very simple reason: There was none.

None, except that is for a culture of authoritarianism & unrelenting state worship. Democratic Athens was eventually crushed by militarist Sparta, leading Plato for one to praise the brutal ‘efficiency’ of the Spartan system which had trained the mindless herds. He essentially replicated it in the authoritarian society he proposed in The Republic, concluding that "family training cannot be trusted; the god of the state demands public control of the breeding, nursing & training of children."

The lessons of Sparta & Plato were not lost on authoritarians & collectivists of every hue in nearly every century. State schools in Prussia, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia & revolutionary France, & religious schools run by English Anglicans, German Lutherans & French Jesuits, all learned from Spartan methods & doctrines. Indeed, the Jesuits, eager to produce youngsters displaying ‘blind obedience to the Pope’ made famous the doctrine: ‘Give me the child until he is seven, & I will show you the man." They recognised the crucial importance of the early childhood years in forming a child’s mind.

So too did influential state school advocate James G. Carter in 1830’s America, who argued that govt should ‘seize the reins’ of flourishing American tuition-charging schools "for its own self preservation…If the Spartan could mould & transform a nation to suit his taste by means of an early education," he argued, "why may not the same be done at the present day?"

It is. Today’s battlefield in is in NZ’s early childhood education centres; it has long been over in primary & secondary schools where the combined forces of the Ministry, NZEI, PPTA, & NZQA have gained power by stealth when they could not do so openly. Much of the parental choice that Plato & the Spartans both abhorred so much has long disappeared from these schools. The recent removal of bulk funding is but another step down a road already dark.

But early childhood education has long been a holdout to this process. It is an industry with 4,000 schools & 8,000 teachers, responsible for nearly 200,000 children. Of these schools, 41% are private fee-paying schools. At present, a de facto voucher system operates which has encouraged a flourishing of diversity. Steiner, Montessori, Playcentre, Kohanga Reo, Froebel, Kindergarten, state maintained schools, private schools, community owned & run schools - all coexist quite happily, & parents take advantage of the diversity & choice on offer. It is this very diversity that is one of the great strengths of early childhood education in this country.

Sadly, it is because of that diversity that it is now under threat. At a 1999 election meeting Helen Duncan & Liz Gordon (both now on the Education Select Committee) confessed that they regarded the existence of private profit-making early childhood centres ‘with concern’, but confessed they were not sure what to do about it.

They do now.

The statists have found a way to storm the early childhood centres, & they are doing it in the name of ‘Quality’! Instead of seizing the schools, they have instead hit on the idea of seizing the teachers, & forcibly retraining them. Minister Trevor Dullard has mandated that all – all – persons responsible for an early childhood centre must have a three-year state diploma by 2005, no matter what other qualification they might already hold. This, Dullard says, "will improve the quality of education [that] children attending early childhood services receive…"

The Early Childhood Council (ECC) representing independent centres estimates this will affect 60% of industry professionals, many of them already holding degrees, diplomas, & even doctorates. Many have successfully run schools for years, with happy children & parents to prove it, but they do not hold a three year Early Childhood Diploma. ECC describes the diploma as often "weighted heavily with academic & not practical requirements, providing little information on infant/toddler age range or on management issues & generally poorly matched to the competencies actually needed by supervising teachers in services."

Challenged at an Auckland public meeting to explain what will happen to a small school whose owner & head teacher must leave to undergo three years of forced re-training – after twenty years of successful teaching -- Dullard admitted, "I don’t know". I do, & so too did that teacher - so probably do the parents of children at her school, & so do the many others being herded into retraining: It will be a disaster. Many early childhood teachers will simply leave the profession, or will leave the country for saner pastures abroad.

I predict in two years time that the number of early childhood centres will have markedly diminished, & those remaining will be struggling to find teachers with significant experience. There will be both a teacher shortage & a school shortage. In a pattern only too familiar to those who watch the growth of the state it will be at precisely this time that we will hear there has been a ‘market failure’ & that the govt must step in & pick up the pieces.

And Sparta will have won again!


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