Class Notes

Foundations of Educational Thought — third meeting

“It lets all the air out of the room; and you spend the rest of your time trying to get it back.” This is what a perceptive mentor told me today about handing-out graded papers at the beginning of class. And she’s right; at least she was about yesterday. Those who know me know that the first assignment is generally a low stakes descriptive essay — that I grade mercilessly. I have never given out a perfect score on this assignment. This class was no exception. Having said that, the class did relatively well in my estimation. 

The experience was a dark gift, a blessing in disguise. The breathless feeling in the room yesterday is precisely what our class was about: Greek aporia; the sine qua non of philosophy. It is the equivalent of soreness to athletics: if you’re not sore after a rugby match, then you probably didn’t play.

The reading for the week was Plato’s Meno. My reading of the Meno is altogether disinterested in the nature of virtue. The first question of the dialogue — “Can virtue be taught?” — is deceptive: while the dialogue leaves that question and the other related ones (like “What is virtue?”) unresolved, it does make some powerful descriptions that are quite definitive and worthy of attention in a way that perhaps all the virtue business is not.  (What can I say? I’m NOT an ethicist.)

The two descriptions we focused on both come out of section 80, where Meno accuses Socrates of being like a torpedo fish, a sting ray of sorts, that numbs anything it comes into contact with. Socrates replies by rejecting the simile because, unlike a sting ray, he is just as perplexed as Meno is. (So he claims.) I explain this by raising the distinction between sting rays and lepers. The way a sting ray “infects” with its barb and venom, on the one hand, and the way a leper “infects” by being contagious, on the other. Socrates’ defense is to argue that he is like a leper, not a sting ray. He only leaves people numb because he is sharing his own condition.

This leads to the classic question of whether it is better to be perplexed by confronting the reality that one’s worldview is in some way mistaken or to be unawarely mistaken but full of self-confidence. Plato shows, without saying, that there is some value in being stunned by the tiny truth of uncertainty. The bliss of ignorance is comfortable, but the suffering of aporia is redemptive and — here is the key! — virtuous. 

There is virtue in being deflated, in getting the air knocked out of you. Maybe I am an ethicist after all! (Just kidding. I am most assuredly no such thing.)

The second question comes from Socrates’ reply to Meno’s next accusation: it is nonsensical to seek what one does not already know. How would you recognize it?! The way I put it in class was that it is very hard to hunt for a species of animal one has no knowledge about. How would you “know” when you see it?! Socrates’ reply to this move flips the nonsense around by asking why one would want to seek that which one already knows? Or, in my own way of putting it: it makes no sense to hunt for the deer that you shot last week. Seeking something you already know is even more absurd than the vexing pursuit of the thing you don’t know.

This leads to question of the value of knowledge altogether and the dark path through which it may appear, if it is a thing at all and a thing that we can obtain to boot. Here we find the most explicitly educational implications, which tie into the classic Platonic idea of what education is — the formation  and ordering of desire — yet leaves a great deal of things to be explored and tied into this still early subject of inquiry.

As you can perhaps tell, yesterday was a substantive, dry, but very important day of work. On the lighter side of things, we did do a dramatic re-enactment of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Really. We did. 

Next week we’ll read Rousseau and, hopefully, my students recover some of the air they lost from the blow of their opening assignments.