Socrates in School

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We live in a technological age. The eye is drawn to it, the mind bounces from stimulated
to stupefied by it, commercials guarantee that the latest gadget will simplify our lives and make them more fulfilling, and schools scramble to prove they are on the cutting edge. But what if it is all a bluff? What if we have been seduced to looking at the bottom line or the party line and have completely lost sight of the finish line? Professor Isaac Kandel, in the middle of the 20th century, lamented that education followed a “hollow doctrine” and was all but bereft “intellectual vitality or moral purpose.” Moreove, in the absence of strong guiding principles education celebrated “change for its own sake” (1). Maybe it is not change we need but a challenge. If it is a challenge one needs than the gadfly of Athens is an able presenter.

St. Socrates, pray for us

Erasmus wrote, “Saint Socrates, pray for us” (2). There are a multitude of possible prayers Socrates would likely say on our behalf…and a legion of prayers he would consider that I could not possibly fathom. Such a thought exercise may have a purpose but I believe it far more prudent to consider what I, as a teacher, would pray to Socrates for. What boon would I seek? The answer is simply to find the patience and words to awaken people (myself most definitely included) to the possibility of living from our learning minds.
Socrates theorized “the soul of every single man is also divided in three” (3, line 580d). Each aspect of the soul sought specific pleasures and led to the habits and actions of a particular kind of person. The three aspects of the soul are the learning, spirited, and one that has “many forms…but we named it…the desiring part…” (4, line 580e). The descriptions Socrates offers of each division and the corresponding pleasures can be quite instructive.

The Three Aspects of the Socratic Soul

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Desiring 

The desiring part of the soul seeks immediate gratification of desires. These desires can  be anything from sex to food. From alcohol to money. Socrates calls identifies the pleasure of this aspect as “gain loving” and even “money loving” (5, line 581a). The modern philosopher Jacob Needleman defines materialism as “a disease of the mind starved for ideas” (6). This mind, so barren of ideas that invigorate and intrigue, seeks vitality from material items and physical experiences separated from an emotional core or a community of friends.

It is also important to note that the desiring part seeks quick and easy answers as well. We live in an age of speed as well as technology, almost completely succumbing to the proposition that speed is good. Articles and books are written about the necessity of educators to meet this generation addiction to speed with activities that feed the addiction! Text them, twitter at them, post on-line now! Now! Now! Maybe, just maybe mind you, schools should stand for something more than being a mere mirror to society or a helpless piece of kelp tossed about by the waves of existing culture. Whatever happened to the beauty of a song being the silence that existed between the notes?

Spirited

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The spirited part of the soul was also referred to as “victory-loving” and “honor-loving” (7, line 581b). It is“wholly set on mastery, victory and good reputation” (8, line 581a). Now, our initial reaction to this might be…hell, yea! Victory! That’s where it’s at! Who wants to be the loser? Who doesn’t want the acclaim and accolades due the person of achievement and action? We’re number one! We’re number one! So, what’s the limitation here? 

The problem is this. The spirited part is “wholly set” on victory. It is most definitely not focused on the joy of the game but the outcome. Your value to the person of the spirited soul is dictated entirely by your capacity to bring victory. You are as valuable as your utility makes you. Don’t talk of human value here. What do you bring to the table? Period.

Steroids in baseball…spirited. Lance Armstrong…spirited.Kid kicked out of the  national scrabble tournament for cheating…spirited (9). High school coaches running up scores and middle aged athletes bragging about things they have never done…spirited. Putting others down to build yourself up…spirited. Image over substance…spirited. Party line over seeking truth…spirited. Well, maybe there is a problem with being ruled by the spirited part of the soul after all.

Learning 

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Socrates identified this part of the soul as “learning-loving” or “wisdom-loving” (10, line 581b). Y’know, the part of the souls schools try to awaken with rubrics and jargon heavy lesson plans. Socrates used the phrase “dragged away…by force along the rough, steep, upward way” to describe someone being moved to the point of experiencing their highest nature (11, line 515e). Dragged, as in someone was forcing the individual to progress. Catering won’t get it done. This part of the soul can only be awakened with patience, diligence, and effort.

We love these mentors in movies. Meet such a person in life and they likely annoy the crap out of us. Forgive me as I show my age here, but it is one thing to cheer for Mr. Miyagi. It would be quite another thing to put up with him in real life. Paint your own &*%$@^& fence!

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The Soul and Pleasure

 

Socrates stressed that each aspect of the soul sought, and experienced, pleasure. The true issue, as he saw it, was that the desiring part and the spirited part only saw value in the pleasure of their own domain. The learning part, however, sees pleasure in all of them but maintains a perspective that keeps that allows for balance and the hope of harmony. 

 The various aspects of the soul, however, don’t always work well together. For example one living intently from the spirited soul sees pleasure from money as vulgar but if learning doesn’t bring awards, notoriety, and acclaim then it is “smoke and nonsense”  (12, line 581d). I mean, if no one is telling you that you are the best then why do it? Meanwhile the desiring part wonders  if learning doesn’t get you paid…now….then what is the point? And, please, spare me your praise unless it comes with some kind of physical reward. (13, line 581d).

And schools, well, they certainly can proclaim high-minded ideals but what do they model? What part of soul is fed in education? In you classroom? In mine? Can you build a love of learning by feeding the other parts? What is the unspoken curriculum of the school your students walk through every day? Moreover, what kind of behaviors do we encourage young people to carry into adulthood? Socrates noted that too many people in a country who are dominated by desiring or spirited aspects of the soul leads to “war-like” men and “lover{s} of gain” and “money makers” incapable of appreciating love of wisdom and learning (14, line 583a).

Back to Erasmus: A simple prayer

St. Socrates pray for us that we may grope until we find a method of making love of learning appealing in its own right. That we live praiseworthy lives while not seeking praise. That we should laud only that which is worthy of lauding. That we be worthy of the victories we win and noble enough to bear the burden of the defeats we suffer. That we have the audacity to pursue wisdom and  compassion while, hopefully, leaving the paths we walk just a little better by our passing.

(1) Aeschliman, M. (2007). Why We Always Need Socrates: Some Unfashionable, Unprogressive Thoughts on Teachers, Teaching, Curriculum. and the Theory of Knowledge, with Reference and Thanks to Socrates, Pascal, and C.S. Lewis. Journal of Education, Vol 188.3, p 31.

(2) Erasmus, Ten Colloquies, trans. Craig R. Thompson (New York: MacMillan, 1986), 158.

(3) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) Needleman, J. The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders (New York, Penguin, 2002), 6.

(7) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(8) ibid.

(9)I’m not making that up. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/15/scrabble-player-caught-cheating_n_1778014.html

(10) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(11) ibid

(12) ibid.

(13) ibid.

(14) ibid.