Callias' boys

Among the charges leveled at Socrates during his trial in 399 BC was that he taught for money.   He actually went to some lengths in the Apology to refute this idea and recounted a conversation he had with a father named Callias who had paid a considerable amount to have his sons educated by Sophists.

Socrates suggests that Callias would have no difficulty locating a teacher who could improve his sons if they were foals or calves.  Any farmer could do the job.  As they are human beings, he wonders if teachers exist who really understand human and political virtue well enough to instruct them.

By "human and political virtue,"  of course, Socrates means teachers who can turn out excellent citizens who have realized their uniquely human potential for moral goodness and, by doing so, strengthen the polis.  Teachers who can provide this service are worth paying, he argues.  The rest are simply taking your money.

The odd thing about this passage isn't that it raises the hoary question of whether education should help us to achieve material success or cultivate our potential for virtue.  No, what's odd is that there was--at least for Socrates' accusers--a taint attached to teaching for money. That's a sentiment almost completely absent from contemporary debates about education.  Indeed, a 'for profit' educational system is admired in many wonky and well-funded think tanks.  It's touted as a panacea for our underachieving non-profit system.  No matter that the facts say otherwise.  A recent article in The Nation sums up the dismal results of the for-profits:
A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.
Okay, so why the rush to ship today's sons of Callias off to for-profit education ventures?  It's not hard to figure out.  As the ancient Sophists realized, there's money to be made in education:
The frenzy to privatize America’s K-12 education system, under the banner of high-tech progress and cost-saving efficiency, speaks to the stunning success of a public relations and lobbying campaign by industry, particularly tech companies. Because of their campaign spending, education-tech interests are major players in elections. In 2010, K12 Inc. spent lavishly in key races across the country, including a last-minute donation of $25,000 to Idahoans for Choice in Education, a political action committee supporting Tom Luna, a self-styled Tea Party school superintendent running for re-election. Since 2004, K12 Inc. alone has spent nearly $500,000 in state-level direct campaign contributions, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. David Brennan, Chairman of White Hat Management, became the second-biggest Ohio GOP donor, with more than $4.2 million in contributions in the past decade.
A number of years ago, a colleague of mine remarked that one day somebody would do to higher education what Ray Kroc did to the french fry.  And you can't argue with the success of the french fry.  Just look at the average American's waistline.   


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