Thomas More’s Utopia (first published in 1516) has been calling out to me from my bookshelf for a few years now, and I finally heeded the call, took it off the shelf and read it. We keep hearing of Utopian visions of culture and society, and I have been itching to go to the sources the word and the concept. More’s book was also a nice complement to the Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. So I read it last week.
More begins by comparing his Utopia (through his fictional character Raphael) with that of Plato’s (from The Republic). Raphael, who has visited Utopia, remarks that the Plato’s ideal was never realized, whereas the Utopians actually implemented their ideal, and with great success. Utopia is an island nation (convenient for implementing ideas without interference and influence) somewhere in the “New World” of the time. There is much to say in summary of More’s ideal society, but let me offer this abbreviation: in Utopia property is held in common, everyone must work or not eat (no one is idle), there is no money nor need for money (gold is common and relatively despised–slave are shackled in gold chains), virtually everyone works on farms. More’s book has been the inspiration for a range of movements from Christian Anabaptism to secular communism.
He does have some Utopian insights for education as well. Not everyone can become a scholar or intellectual. He writes, “Admittedly, no one’s allowed to become a full-time student, except for the very few in town who appear as children to possess unusual gifts, outstanding intelligence, and a special appetite or academic research. But every child receives a primary education, and most men and women go educating themselves all their lives during those free periods I told you about.” (Book Two)
We find in More, another example of a highly-educated elite, and a generally-educated working class. He also finds friendly company with some progressive educational theorists who advocated mental testing in order to separate students into appropriate curriculum determined by student aptitude with a goal of serving “social efficiency.” This clashes with the thinking of Mortimer Adler, who argued that the best education for some, was the best education for all. Adler wanted to democratize classical education, More was content with restricting it to the best and brightest–as did Plato in The Republic.
So should we stand with More or Adler? Or must we choose between them?