Thursday, September 30, 2010

Socrates' partial failure

In today's discussion the general opinion was that though he gives it his best shot Socrates fails in Republic, either to define Justice as such or to show that a just person is always in a better state than an unjust one. In some sense these failures are structurally inevitable, if (as Sayre suggests) Justice is one of those things that are too important to learn through mere reason.

We also discussed the possibility that Socrates nonetheless succeeds on another level in affecting the young men's character -- for example, none of those named as part of this discussion went on to join the Tyranny of the Thirty in 404 (some others of Socrates' former companions in fact did so). If he does accomplish this, it cannot be simply because he is a better reasoner than Thrasymachos (whom he certainly tames in verbal combat), for as we have observed some of Socrates' own key arguments seem as shamelessly sophistic as Thrasymachos' own. (Always presuming we understand the arguments and are interpreting them with sufficient charity). Rather, he succeeds because the young men find his character and intellect more engaging than the alternatives -- what they learn, if anything, is to admire Socrates.

If this is right, then we have witnessed a rather remarkable slight of hand, the educational failure masking a larger but ambiguous success: can we countenance a model of a teacher who teaches no real content, but simply models an admirable character in seeming to do so?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Two Kinds

There are those who appreciate binary dimorphisms, and those who don't. For the former, here is a piece on current educational trends in the media and politics by Marion Brady:
"Teaching, many long-time teachers know, isn’t a simple matter of transferring information into a kid’s head, but a far more complex, multi-step process. The teacher has to (a) “get inside” that head to figure out what’s thought to be true, right, or important, (b) understand the kid’s value system well enough to offer ideas sufficiently appealing to warrant taking them seriously and paying attention, (c) choose language or tasks that question old ideas and clarify new ones, (d) get feedback as necessary to decide how to proceed, (e) load the whole process up with enough emotion to carry it past short-term memory..."

Plato's Epistemology

One of you wondered why we are reading the difficult and fairly technical material in Book VI, given that it may not even be Plato's view (only a theory!) or even the primary thing that Socrates wants G&A to learn, and it would seem to have relatively little directly to do with issues pedagogical. This is a fair question.

One reason I think it is worth our time is that such systematic reasoning about the nature of being and knowing does seem to be a critical step -- though only a step -- in Socrates' attempt to prepare students to learn what's most important. In this regard it is another example of his principled caginess, as he presents such allegedly pure rationality as the lesson plan itself, when actually there's much more at stake.

Another is that if we are to evaluate Sayre's contention that for Plato the most important insights are inaccessible to language and logic, but rooted in emotion and image, and requiring a special quality of intellectual intuition, we need to see how such an idea might develop. Later in the course we will talk about critical thinking as a central goal of all learning (Siegel), and we will need to understand this, as it may present a pointed challenge to that view.


Here's a thoughtful piece by Kwame Anthony Appiah on what our descendents are likely to condemn us for. You may have to register for the online Washington Post to read it, but that's free and easy to do.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Politics and Whales

I got to thinking about Steve's very interesting question at the end of class, about why it is that Plato's Republic has for so long been interpreted as essentially a political tract, despite the fact that the text itself says many times and in many ways that it isn't. the claim is not unlike saying that Herman Melville's Moby Dick is about a whale -- not precisely false, but so misleading as almost completely to miss the point. (Some of you literature students may remember that Moby Dick sold poorly during Melville's lifetime, partly because he declined Hawthorne's generous offer to review it, and because everyone else mistook it for an adventure tale for boys.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Being Together and Insight

By now have a solid image of sunousia in Socratic pedagogy. Remember that this conversation has been going on for hours, and has replaced both the dinner and the spectacle with which Polemarchos and Adeimantos lured Glaucon and Socrates to Cephalos' house. No one has eaten but Socrates, who pronounced his feast of words unsatisfying because undisciplined at the end of Book I. Yet even Thrasymachos remains in the circle, and everyone is paying close attention.

The claim Sayre makes for sunousia is that it embodies the "something more" about learning that is not exhausted by the memorization of information, or even by the process itself of giving and weighing arguments, the practice of which can really only prepare us for insight into the most important things. I believe it was Nate who suggested that this seemed like a mystical or supernatural claim, but perhaps it is something more mundane than that.

Suppose I were to present a simple argument. I could list the premises and conclusion, but (if it's a good argument) the conclusion does not just follow sequentially; it follows as an inference. The inference is a relationship between premises and conclusion such that you see that the latter follows. There is really no way I can discursively show you the inference if you don't literally experience it for yourself, with a kind of insight that transcends the list (though of course the list supports it). (For a hilarious example of refusing to accept an inference despite assenting to the premises, see Lewis Carroll's "What the Tortise Said to Achilles").

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Education in Crisis?

Some perspective on the perennially breathless debate on the state of education:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Moral Relativism (again)

Issues of moral relativism are, strictly speaking, beyond the scope of this course, but in many ways getting some clarity about basic morality is propaedeutic to our collective project. Perhaps it would be good if a course in moral philosophy were prerequisite for one like ours. Teaching and learning, at least among social beings like humans, always involves relationships with others, so it must operate on some set of presuppositions about the nature of those relationships and the boundaries that ought to govern them. Thus moral philosophy, and value theory generally, are deeply implicated in any serious thinking about pedagogy. In particular, standpoints that skeptically presume the indeterminability of moral questions, or reduce all answers to such questions to collective agreements or subjective preferences, would actually (if sound) make our project impossible.

Here, therefore, is a short argument, a reductio ad absurdum, of such views, and thus indirectly in favor of the fallible tractability of moral norms:

Suppose all moral propositions were nothing but subjective preferences. It would follow that we could never even in principle criticize anyone else’s behavior or moral views, since ex hypothesi whatever they believe would be true (for them), so long as they sincerely believed they were right (and sincerity is subjective, so not available for public inspection). It would also follow that no-one could ever, even in principle, make a mistake about what was right or wrong. Thus if Hitler says he sincerely believes that Jews are vermin, then that’s okay according to our supposition (too bad for Jews, and others who disagree), and we have no conceptual basis from which to criticize his view, or the actions he takes on the basis of it (including genocide). Suppose then Hitler has a conversion experience after encountering a kindly Jew, and adopts the view that Jews are as worthy of respect as Aryans and everyone else. Just as we had no basis to criticize him before, now we have no grounds to praise his conversion. Hitler himself cannot even honestly say he was wrong but had discovered his mistake, since whatever view he holds at any given time is by definition just fine – true for him, true for now, but subject to random change without notice.

So the bullet you would have to bite to equate moral propositions with purely subjective preferences is a bitter one indeed. We couldn’t even claim that murder was wrong; we could only express our idiosyncratic personal distaste for it, like an exotic food that a few people enjoy – to each his or her own – but that just happens to strike the rest of us as yucky. But who knows, maybe one day it will catch on!

Faced with this disastrous consequence, many people retreat to the idea of collective agreements or cultural determination of moral norms. What most people think is right and wrong, or what a culture determines is a part of its way of life, on this view actually determines right and wrong in any given time and place. This position presents some of the same problems as the other one: What of a society such as ours, that used to own slaves but has abolished the practice? Should we say that slaveholding was morally just fine until we collectively decided not to do it, and now it’s exploitative and wrong? What do we say of the brave minority of dissenters who actually brought the change about, in part by explaining to the rest of us on objective grounds why the practice – even while still popular – was in fact brutally immoral? At the very least this theory makes mincemeat of many otherwise meaningful ways of speaking about our world.

The real problem for the cultural norm/collective agreement theory, though, is that it actually collapses into the personal preference view. As Midgley points out, cultures aren’t monolithic bubbles; each is a dynamic amalgam of many influences, kept vital by constant change arising through dissent from both within and without. In all cultures and societies, what precisely the cultural norm or general agreement consists of on a moral question will depend on who we ask, and we’re once again back to individual preference and its difficulties.

Remember, by the way, that truth (see toolkit) is a relationship between statements and what is the case, so the phrases “true for you but not for me” or “true for us but not for them” are incoherent. To qualify as true, our beliefs must hook up with reality, which is the same for everyone no matter what we think. To those who persist in denying that there is any moral reality for moral claims to hook up with, I submit the proposition: “However much one might want to, it would be wrong to strangle one’s mother under almost any circumstances.” If there is anyone unwilling to accept this as a fact, we should hope they live very far away from their parents, and for that matter from us.

Etymology of Knowledge

The term ‘epistemology’ derives from Greek, but is not actually an ancient Greek word. Coined in 1820 as an English translation of the German Wissenschaftslehre (the title of a book by Fichte more recently translated as The Science of Knowledge). It’s root is episteme, a general term for knowledge or understanding prominent in Plato, plus logos (speech, word, discourse, reason). Episteme, in turn, comprises the prefix epi- (on, against, near) plus the verb histemi, to put or place. The root is ste-, place or determine, a variant of the Proto-Indo-European stha- or sta- which we know from modern words like static, station, stanza, obstinate, and Rajasthan. Thus etymologically, at least, ‘understanding’ is a very close relative.

In 1820, every formally educated person had studied Greek, so the coinage made intuitive sense. These days such terms can seem unnecessarily technical and daunting; maybe a little background helps.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Socrates on Music

Even at the literal level of the argument in Republic II and III, Socrates’ critique of music and the poets acknowledges just how powerful these media are in human life: there would be no need to edit them for style and content if they were merely diverting, rather than formative. He not only observes the depth at which music touches our consciousness (“…rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the psyche and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them…” 401D), which we now understand to involve neural integration unmatched by other cognitive processes (See Leviton, This is Your Brain on Music); he is clearly aware of just how plastic human nature is as a whole. Socrates here expresses this insight negatively, in terms of risk and corruptibility, but the flip side is our potent educability. He assumes neither that humans are naturally good nor that they are bad; he observes, rather, that we are capable of learning.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Value-Added" Assessment

Here's an article thoughtfully critical of the new initiative to use student test scores to rate teachers' performance over time. In light of the conversations we've been having, I am struck particularly by the author's reference to the initiative's commodification of learning -- treating knowledge as "things" that students acquire from teachers. His suggestions about the political and economic subtexts are also intriguing, if true. Proponents of value-added assessment speak of identifying effective teaching techniques so as to disseminate them, but what if technique is only a small piece of what a teacher does -- what if the experience of learning has crucially to do with a relationship with the teacher? It's difficult to see how you would clone that...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Trying Out One's New Sword

In Republic I, Plato's character Socrates attempts to defend the idea of justice as a human moral virtue against Thrasymachos' explicit immoralism. Several of you have expressed skepticism about the very possibility of any objective morality (which both S. & T. presuppose, in the sense of 'objective' we explain in the philosophy toolkit). We will have to have a serious discussion of the question of moral relativism at some point, and propaedeutic to that conversation, here is a famous article by the philosopher Mary Midgley. Let me know if you have trouble with the URL, which sends you to a chapter in a googlebooks offering:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Debate or Conversation?

You will have noticed that in Book I of the Republic, as elsewhere in the Platonic corpus, there is persistent tension about method – of inquiry and hence pedagogy – alongside the obvious discussion of justice. Some of the young men seem to view discussion mainly as competitive sport, and the sophist Thrasymachos in particular would much prefer a competition of persuasive speeches, a debate, over Socrates’ wimpy question-and-answer style.

This distinction between debate and various other sorts of conversation roughly parallels the distinction in our modern classrooms between didactic lecturing styles and discussion-based learning. Thus I hope you will pay close attention to the merits and limits of both as Plato presents them.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Covert Paternalism on Campus?

A flier recently distributed on campus for new and prospective students and their parents contained the following statements:

1) “95% of St. Mary’s students live on campus.”

2) “Students who live on campus have a higher average GPA than those living off campus.”

Given the nature of the publication we might guess the intended inferences are that:

3) Living on campus will place a student among the majority

And assuming somewhat dubiously that:

4) Being among the majority is generally a good thing

It would follow that

5) It is best for students to live on campus

Such an inference, if intended, may commit an ad populum fallacy. Premise 2 perhaps seeks to reinforce this message by suggesting, via a possible false cause fallacy and some statistical confusion, that:

6) If you choose to live on campus your GPA will likely be higher than if you do not.

Though of course there is no good reason to think this will be so in any individual case, or that there is any direct causal link between the two.

Aside from logical problems, the use of these statistics and their likely implications in a publication for parents or prospective students suggests a covert strategy to encourage on-campus living. Of course, there is nothing wrong with promoting on-campus living. Such a deceptive strategy, however, risks insulting those who, for a variety of reasons, live off campus (and are, as the flier concedes, a small minority, thereby compounding the offense).

Friday, September 3, 2010

Objectivity of Intellectual Virtues?

Sharon's questions in class yesterday about the intellectual virtues ("Why these rather than some others?" and "Aren't the habits of highly reasonable people subjective?") got me thinking.

Suppose I gave you the periodic table of the elements, and you asked: Why these rather than some others? Naturally I would answer that these represent certain useful, regular features of the chemical world as we have discovered it. By analogy, I take this (abbreviated, summary) list of intellectual virtues to represent key objective features of an effective knowing process as we have collectively discovered it. (Refer to the toolkit for how to interpret the term ‘objective’ in this statement).

Of course, the toolkit does not give an argument for why these particular habits are effective means of refining knowledge and avoiding error, but then neither does the periodic table. Presumably some sense of why they make sense will emerge as we attempt to employ them.