Posts Tagged ‘Socrates’

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.

As a human being and a person in the knowledge business both as student and teacher, and as a worshipper of books, and libraries, and book stores, and finally as a great fan of good old Socrates, the creator of the Socratic Method, and founder of western philosophy, I often enough find myself worrying about how the learning process works for I want to continue learning new things as well as hang on to what I’ve already learned.

But you might be asking yourself, my dear, exceptionally sweet, always forthcoming Turtlett, “What’s there to worry about? By your own admission, you’ve got it. You learned what you’ve learned and you’ve then gone ahead and stored your learning where you can summon it up whenever you need it.” “That’s possible,” I might reply, though a more likely response would be that learning’s not quite so easy. Firstly, let me mention that I’m perfectly capable of forgetting things I think I’ve learned; and secondly, if I do forget things, maybe that’s because I didn’t really learn them or learn them as well as I thought I’d learned them. This explanation surely makes a great deal of sense to me, even if my imaginary interlocutor remains entirely unconvinced.

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Can you find Peter Stern?

But I also reminded myself that another major cause of my concern stemmed from remembering the example of Socrates and his confession of ignorance. For I can never entirely forget his famous declaimer that he knows he knows nothing. Let’s think about this for a minute. I mean if Socrates says he knows nothing, how can I claim to know so much, indeed, how can I claim to know anything at all? Surely a conundrum of sorts, at least for me, and very possibly somewhere down the road, for you too, my ever thoughtful readers doubling as intrepid explorers and exemplars of critical thinking’s joys.

So, wandering lonely as a cloud over a wine dark sea as more dilemmas leaped out at me like hungry lions waiting for their favorite midday meal, a new thought suddenly flashed in my brain bringing me some small comfort from my concerns. As this new thought increasingly occupied my mind, my worries about learning and knowledge seemed to lessen.

Can you find the dalmatian?

Can you find the dalmatian?

And here’s why. The idea that hit me so suddenly was amazingly simple and yet extraordinarily helpful in sorting out what learning and knowledge are all about, and hopefully you’ll find this idea helpful to you too. Again, the idea is extremely simple or at least simple to state. Here it is. Learning involves seeing patterns in the information or data or material we’re thinking about.

In other words, facts are facts and in theory we can approach each fact as an entirely separate sort of thing and commit it to memory. But that’s not learning; it’s memorizing. By contrast, learning entails seeing the connections or patterns between facts or between different things which in turn tells us what they mean. Reading or listening to stories provides a gazillion examples of this sort of experience.

In a story, we’re introduced to a series of main characters who find themselves in a particular setting with a singular goal they’re trying to achieve or an issue they wish to resolve. They create and initiate plans to realize their objective. And at the end of the story we find out whether or not they were successful. In many ways this sounds like Aristotle’s famous statement about stories having a beginning, middle, and end.

Reflecting on a story reveals to the reader or listener how the beginning is linked to the end and how other elements of the story form a variety of patterns. We can notice how two characters operate either in similar or in very different ways. We might even realize that they do both: they act in similar ways but also in contrasting ways. We can discern patterns with respect to the characters and the setting and how the things the characters say foreshadow the story’s end.

I had just such an experience in class the other day watching a film called “A League of Their Own.” Although I had already seen the movie a bunch of times, it was only this week that I noticed early on how the main character, who was the team’s star, was going to get into an increasingly ugly argument with her sister who felt her star studded sib was hogging the stage—or rather, the diamond. This time around I also understood the ending much better as I saw far more clearly the pattern that linked the sisters and thus could appreciate in a deeper way the twist the ending provided.

The same sort of people patterns we see in a movie or novel or short story can also be found in real life whether in the news, in politics, at work, and/or at play. You might also find them in a painting, in a song, or in an amazing cloud formation as you look over Lake Michigan very early in the morning and see the rosy fingered dawn first breaking through the still largely dark night sky.

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Texting-on-a-Date

In my ‘Comparative Worldviews’ class, I enjoy asking my students if they think the story of humanity is one of progression, or decline.  A simple, but incredibly broad question to be sure.  Usually students will reply with some excellent nuanced answers, pointing out that such a simple dualistic question glosses over the complexities of our modern world.  Most point out that humanity has progressed, and continues to progress in areas such as medicine, science and technology.  Though surrounded by it their whole lives, my students appreciate how quickly technology is advancing. However, some rightly point out that progression in one area of life, can lead to decline in another.  It may be surprising to those who don’t interact with ‘millennials’ on a daily basis, but I find that most students feel that the progression of information and communication technology they have lived through has had radically negative social repercussions.

The above staged photo encapsulates the problem my students have with information technology.  I have heard the majority of young adults I teach argue that, though modern, handheld computers provide us a deluge of instantaneous information, they are ‘also killing human interaction’.  In this belief, they are by no means alone.  It is almost becoming a cliche to state that cell-phones, texting, social media and constant internet access drives a wedge between humans, causing all sorts of existential threats. Texting causes a loss of spelling and grammar rules! Cellphones destroy interpersonal communication! Social media increases the opportunities for lying and narcissism! Cell phones destroy human empathy!   Humanity is evidently doomed if we keep going down the road we are travelling.

And yet….let’s look at a couple more pictures.

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Two elderly couples reading newspapers

Now, what do you think of when you look at these two photographs?  I am going to make an assumption about your conclusions.  These pictures provide generally positive emotions, correct?  The photo of the young couple enjoying a leisurely read outdoors  seems relaxing, and romantic.  The picture on the right, with the two elderly couples, has a timelessly quaint aura.   Perhaps these husbands and wives have had this ritual of sitting on a park bench, reading the daily newspaper for years, if not decades.  What could be more traditional; what could be more human?

These two photos are the antithesis of the top photo, right?

Not at all. These three pictures are more similar than different. Two people sitting at a table on their separate smartphones is wholly similar to the old couples sitting on a the bench reading their respective papers. All of these people are socially isolated with an individually hand-held communication tool. What difference is there if the loving pair in the grass have a couple novels, or a couple iPhones?  The quality of their reading material may be the only thing; and even then, with e-readers, this may not even be the case.  Both are lost in another world, one digital, the other paper-based.

And, yet, we do see a difference; on an emotional, visceral level, it just seems different.  But, why? Why is the first photo seen as dangerous and distasteful for the future health of all humanity, while the second is sweet, charming and heartwarming?  When I asked my students this question, one young woman stated that texting requires technology, and hence, the top picture is different.

But, wait!  Books are a technology as well.   The written word itself, is a technology.  Neither are natural; they are both human cultural inventions. Mass produced, hand- held books are only 500 or so years old.  The written word is about 10 times older. Over the centuries, these technologies have changed, but usually quite slowly; this change has seemed organic, and glacial to someone living in our times of radical technological advancements.   But, go back to any year before Gutenberg’s press, and you will discover a world of communication that is almost unrecognizable. After the radical invention made books a mass-produced commodity, you will find ‘Chicken Littles’ predicting doom as a result.  Such warnings were even applied to the written word. Plato tells us that Socrates, who never wrote anything down, warned that the written word was dangerous since it,

will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

I assume that in 50 years, if cellphones are still with us, pictures such as the one found at the top of this post will be seen as quaint and charming. There will undoubtedly be a new communication technology invented that will be blamed for the inevitable fall of all human interaction, or Western Civilization….or something. I kind of can’t wait to see wait to see that new technology.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Remember “The Cosby Show”?  If you are too young to answer in the affirmative, you better go check it out on Netflix or Youtube.  Go now, I will wait…..Okay, now that you realize what you were missing, did you see (or do you remember) the episode in which Theo and Cockroach need to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth for an English test?  The two boys talk about girls, clothes, sports, cars and music, but they have no desire to read the play.  So, they look for a supposedly easy out.  The slackers attempt to avoid reading Shakespeare by listening to a recorded version of the play instead.  They get the recorded album (it is the 80′s remember) of Macbeth from the library; they think listening to it will allow them to avert hard-work.  To their disappointment, they find it is not simple to listen to Shakespeare.  With the album of Macbeth out of the picture, the boys stumble upon “Cleland Notes” that provide a quick summary of the tragedy.   Have a look at a couple classic scenes:

“The Cosby Show” always had a lesson.  This episode obviously was attempting to tell kids that hard work (like reading Shakespeare) would pay off, and trying to get around it by doing something easier would come back to haunt you, like a ghostly blood-stained dagger. The show’s moral could be stated even more bluntly: Reading is good.  Don’t avoid it.  Just do it.  Cockroach and Theo need to learn this the hard way. They likely fail the English test.

Who would disagree with this moral? In our society, most parents stand with Cliff and Claire Huxtable, arguing that reading is an absolute good; always the best learning methodology.  But, these arguments don’t hold water. We don’t live in a world of absolutes, and reading is not always a complete good.  The two boys are right.  Reading ‘The Bard’ can be a chore. On the other hand, watching and listening to Shakespeare is unforgettable.

Dear reader, you must understand that I am a bibliophile extraordinaire.  If I have free time, I read books.  I read on the train; in between classes; before bed; with my morning coffee. I love reading.  It is my hobby; my passion.  I agree with Cliff and Claire Huxtable’s unstated moral: Reading provides enjoyment, intellectual stimulation and self-betterment. But, there are just certain things that should be heard, seen or experienced, and not read.  Sit down and read Sophocles to yourself; then listen to or watch Oedipus the King.  The difference is staggering.  Reading the words provides beauty, but watching the tragedy performed is incomparable.

51noqEetVvL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_This topic is on my mind because I am teaching at a branch campus this quarter, and hence, I am in the car for a couple hours a day. When in the car, I listen to audiobooks to pass the time. I would initially grab audiobooks dealing with my preferred topics of study: History, psychology, philosophy.  I found that these books were good reading, but poor listening.  So, a couple weeks ago, I went with something more exciting. I grabbed the 11 CD audiobook of The Odyssey by Homer as read by Sir Ian McKellen.  Boom! Incredible.

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Homer?

This wasn’t my first run-in with Homer.  I read The Odyssey my Sophomore year in college for a Western Civilization course.  Our professor told us on Tuesday to read the 500-plus page epic by that Thursday.  This was ridiculous.  Of course, I read the book as fast as possible, skimming through the ‘unimportant’ parts.  My experience with Telemachus, Circe, Odysseus and the Cyclops was tainted.  Though it has so many recognizable moments, reading the work frantically felt repetitive, and truthfully, boring.

That was 15 years ago. I thought I would give it another go with the recorded version.  Listening to the words, not reading them to myself, clarified the absolute power of Homer’s masterpiece.  The beauty of the language and the psychological introspection of character was magnified ten-fold. Even the repetition (necessary since the work was orally relayed from bard to bard) started to become addictive and beautiful.  Listening to the reoccurring descriptions was a welcome occurrence,  not an annoyance.

The Greeks did not lionize the written word above other methods of pedagogy.  How could they with their cultural inheritance of Homer?  How could they when the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were central to civic life?  How could they when Socrates was questioning Athenians in the Agora?  To be honest, Socrates thought quite negatively of the written word.  He was concerned that reading and writing may ruin the skills of conversation, argument and memory.  In this belief, Socrates was far too radical.  Reading is obviously wondrous.   But, the opposite belief that reading is the only correct way to learn is just as radical, and just as wrong.  Theo and Cockroach had the right idea about that, methinks.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

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Socrates

I love Socrates.  It is hard not to.  In an age when physical beauty was all-important, Socrates was notoriously unattractive.  Big head, bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, pot-belly and dirty feet were his physical attributes.  When we say ‘true beauty is on the inside’, Socrates helps us prove the cliche is more than just talk.  It was his brain that made the man beautiful.  Of course, that beautiful brain would earn Socrates a death sentence.

In 399 BC Socrates drank a small cup of hemlock and died in seconds. Infamously, the reason he was put to death was for ‘corrupting’ the youth of Athens, and for introducing new divinities into the polis.  But, the real problem was twofold.  First, he kept company with men who would become enemies of the Athenian city-state.  These men admired and loved Socrates, and so, the philosopher was painted with the brush of disloyal collaboration.  Second, and more importantly, he simply asked too many damn questions that ticked off powerful people.

The questions Socrates asked were difficult to answer, and his dialogue partners often found themselves in the embarrassing situation of realizing that they were not quite as wise as they thought. Granted, Socrates asked some toughies. He wanted to know: What is virtue?  Why should people be good?  What is beauty? What is truth?  As he walked the streets, he understandably looked for those that society proclaimed as wise, powerful, and virtuous to get his answers. But, as he would frame his broad questions to chosen Athenians, he found (and so did they), that they had little idea how to respond. This embarrassment led to anger; anger led to punishment.

I always get excited to introduce (or reintroduce) Socrates to my students in Western Civilization and Comparative Worldviews.  In comparison to other great philosophers, his arguments are quite accessible and his hypothetical situations are made for classroom discussions.  (I find the Ring of Gyges is the best for heated debate.)  But, I realized there is something else that makes Socrates so understandable and easy to empathize with: Every student has known a Socrates. Every student has even been a Socrates themselves.  Then they grew out of it.

Raising my own children has provided me with a perfect, recognizable analogy for Socrates.  At about three, our girls both turned into mini-Socratic thinkers. They grasped the wisdom that the only thing they knew was that they knew nothing. And so, what do little 3 and 4 year olds do?  They ask ‘why’?  “Why this, and why that”; why everything.  “Why do you go to work, daddy”?  “Why do you garden, mommy”? “Why are we Americans?” “Why do I need to go to bed”?  “Why do people die”?

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Nemesis

How do parents respond?  We usually get frustrated.  “Stop asking”!  “Why? Because it just is”!  “I said so, that’s why”! Or, we buy them off. “Wouldn’t you like some ice cream”?  Such responses are based upon more than simple annoyed exhaustion.  Parents realize that once three or four consecutive “whys” are thrown our way, we don’t really have an answer anymore.  Parental frustration stops being simply about answering questions, and soon becomes self-examination of our lack of wisdom. We stop children dead in their tracks with logical fallacies, and the changing of subjects because we want to keep living within our caves.  We find that our children’s  questions can make us squirm with discomfort.

We are able to buy children off with some frozen treats, or scare them with raised voices.  For those in Ancient Athens, Socrates was not so easily disabused of his questions.  Ice cream wouldn’t do it.  Anger wouldn’t do it.  Socrates argued that he was the only thing keeping Athens awake and aware, and would never stop buzzing around them with questions.  So they killed him.

Athenian democrats silenced a voice that made them feel uncomfortable, frustrated, and frightened.  They never had to hear those “why” questions from the old man again.  Ah, but fate is fickle. Nemesis, the Greek goddess of divine retribution brought comeuppance. Though Athenians killed him off, a new Socrates was born in Athens everyday.