Thursday, January 27, 2011

Socrates Had Potential

On my desk at work is an essay called "Teacher Guilt," an editorial my wife printed from an online news source and gave to me for solace at trying times.  Pointing out that, with its proliferation of research in pedagogy, our culture provides educators with a legion of methods, ideas, and strategies for successful teaching, the article then lifts the weary, disheartened teacher with the assurance that, even in the presence of the most skilled instructor, some of the onus of the educational process still lies on the student's shoulders.  According to Spider Man, with great power comes great responsibility; but the teacher's power can never make the horses at the watering hole drink, and so the responsibility for learning cannot be the teacher's alone.  Some students don't have the aptitude for the material.  Others don't put in the work.  And others yet, with alternative interests and goals and motivations, end up enriching themselves by the experience in ways that don't show up on the teacher's tests.

Plato seems not to have understood this lesson.  And if we can believe him on the matter, neither did his teacher, Socrates.  In Plato's Meno, Socrates and Meno explore the question of whether virtue is natural or learned.  Socrates comes to the conclusion that neither is true: virtue in any given case is a divine gift, like a prophecy that the speaker doesn't understand.  The conclusion here improves on the treatment given to virtue in Plato's earlier dialog Protagoras, in which Socrates and Protagoras come to no conclusion on the question.  And I agree that virtue is a divine gift.  But not all divine gifts come as spectacular manifestations that use the recipient merely as a transparent conduit, as in the case of the prophecies Socrates had in mind.  Every natural endowment and every bit of learned knowledge or skill also comes ultimately from God's hand, so saying virtue is a gift from God doesn't tell me that it can't be learned.

Socrates comes to his conclusion by process of elimination.  Virtue doesn't seem to form a part of human nature, and it doesn't appear to be learned, so it must be acquired without learning, and that must happen by God's direct intervention.  But Socrates' view of education looks flawed to me.  He doesn't think virtue is learned because he can't identify any teachers.  The Sophists profess to teach virtue, he says, but every sensible man knows that they only corrupt the youth.  You'd think great, virtuous men would teach their children to be good, but history shows us that that doesn't always happen.  Socrates falls into the error described in "Teacher Guilt": if there are no skilled teachers, learning simply doesn't happen.

Most of what we think of as learning, according to Socrates, is only recollection anyway.  In the course of the dialog with Meno, Socrates leads a slave boy through a geometrical problem without exactly giving him the answers.  When the boy finds the solution, Socrates reasons: he didn't know the answer, and now he does, and yet he didn't learn the answer, because I didn't teach it, so he must have simply remembered it, and since he never knew it before in this life, he must have remembered it from a past life.  Besides ignoring the problem of infinite regression (how did the boy acquire the knowledge in the previous life?), Socrates doesn't recognize the possibility of an aptitude for figuring things out, a potential.  Some students have such great potential that they learn a thing even without a teacher, as, say, Newton did with calculus.  Some students have such low potential in a given field that they don't learn much even with a great teacher, as, for instance, me reading Newton's Principia Mathematica.  Recognizing the parts that both teacher and student play in the comedy of learning accounts for all of Socrates' other problems, including the sons who don't grow up as great as their fathers.

Plato makes another, related mistake consistently in almost every dialog: assuming that once people learn what's right, they will pursue it.  This Platonic error lives on in our culture's naive belief that if we just tell kids about the dangers of drugs, they won't indulge.  In Protagoras, Socrates says that everyone always chooses what seems good, that they weigh the short-term benefits as they understand them and the long-term costs as they understand them, and choose what will be most beneficial.  No one, he claims, chooses a petty pleasure in a moment of weakness, willfully oblivious to the consequences.  But his claim ignores the perversity of human nature that seems indisputable to me.  The evidence for this deliberate contrariness confronted Socrates at every turn.  Why didn't he pick up on it?  Well, because we just don't always learn the lessons presented to us.

But Socrates had the potential to learn it.

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