19 September, 2008

Education in the Platonic dialogues

As the question of what people really know and what they don't know (and of whether true wisdom really is expressed in the infinitely unwieldy phrase "knowing that you know what you know and that you don't know what you don't know") is so relentlessly pursued at least in the undercurrents of each Socratic dialogue, it's not surprising that over the course these writings Plato offers several accounts of knowledge and education.

What may be surprising is that in "Meno" Socrates seems to deny that there is any such thing as teaching or learning. Indeed? What then, has his life been? Is not Socrates held up as the greatest of ancient teachers; one of the few who could clear the misinformed mind and enable the young to pursue truth? That's just the point. What Plato wants to accomplish here is to provoke readers to question what education really is. How does one in fact move from ignorance to knowledge?

His explanation for the phenomenon of "learning" in "Meno" is rather unconvincing, I find, though he may have been using it merely as a spur to further thought (as he so often and so aggravatingly does). Socrates claims that there really is no such thing as learning at all: what appears to be learning is only recollection of previous experiences(the soul being infinitely reincarnated and enjoying brief sojourns with the forms between lives). However the value of this theory as a whole concerns me less at the moment than one simple Platonic belief it reveals: knowledge cannot simply be given to another. A teacher cannot somehow infuse the student with knowledge, convenient as that might be for everyone concerned.

"Theaetetus" and the "Republic" give a more complete explanation of the concept at the heart of this belief. The educator, "Theaetetus" proposes, is like a midwife: he must help the student to give birth to new ideas. The "Republic" puts the same idea into another light. As the student, Socrates says, cannot be given knowledge, the teacher performs his task properly simply by turning the student towards the "light" of truth. Education, then, is akin to a conversion of sorts.

The ramifications of such a view could heavily influence education in the modern world where schools and universities focus all too often on filling students with information, preparing them for tests, and ensuring that they make the grade to go on and take more tests. Few now consider preparation of the mind to recognize and receive truth as the essence of education (or at least, not in practice). Yet only by making the student an active part of the learning process rather than a passive receiver of information can education go beyond utilitarian preparation for a career to a pursuit of reality. There is no way for the encounter with reality to be impersonal, and by withholding the tools necessary for such an encounter, modern education cripples students, who like all humans have an innate desire for what is real and true.

Modern education suffers from this problem acutely because of our culture's stubborn refusal to recognize that there is any objective reality. However the true education has always been difficult to achieve in any culture due to the pride innate in our fallen nature. Humility is the key to both the teacher's and the student's success in such an endeavor. The teacher must be willing to forget himself to allow the student the chance to discover the truth. He cannot end in imposing his own views on the student, but neither should he encourage the student to pursue ideas unconnected with the truth. The foremost devotion of the teacher must be to reality, and the student will, if in turn he or she is willing to put forth an effort, be freed from self-centeredness and ideology that hamper pursuit of truth. This freeing must be in some sense mutual - the learner and the one who offers knowledge must both struggle to "give birth" to new ideas and understanding.

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