The Ancient Greek Iconoclast’s Philosophy of Education

The basic philosophical foundation that supports the Socratic philosophy of education Socrates, in The Republic, begins his query by asking how is it best to live one”s life? He suggests the best life is lived in such a fashion that is conducive to creating a just society. Such a society is the one designed that is most conducive to justice, and therefore to happiness, as opposed to pleasure. Remember that happiness for the Greeks was not a matter of individual self-fulfillment. Rather, Socrates considered happiness as fulfilling one”s most fitting vocational role in society. Socrates defined a society that is best in autocratic terms-a cobbler should not rule, and a potential ruler or philosopher should not make shoes, because this is antithetical to their natural abilities and fitness.
But although Socrates advocated oligarchy as the fittest system of governance, he did not advocate aristocracy. In one of his earlier dialogues, called the “Meno,” Socrates is shown leading a slave boy through mathematical proofs. With correct prompting the boy is thus able to recover innate knowledge about the world. Thus Socrates saw intellectual gifts as intrinsic to the human mind and not necessarily based on the ability of the tutor. This is why Socrates did not charge for his teachings, unlike the Sophists. (Kemerling, 2002,”Socrates,” The Philosophy Pages)
But to accept the Socratic doctrine one must also believe that potential intellectual abilities are not democratically bestowed upon individuals as suggested by the Sophists, who aimed to teach all people to rhetorically please the people in the law courts and in the political sphere, by using clever phrases. Socrates believed that there was an inherent paradox in acquring knowledge “the most fundamental questions about our own nature and function,” are actually unaswerable and undemonstratable by common rhetorical devices, therefore “it seems impossible for us to learn anything. The only escape, Socrates proposed, is to acknowledge “that we already know what we need to know.” (Kemerling, 2002, “Plato: Immortality and the Forms-Doctrine of Recollection,” Philosophy Pages)

How does this philosophy define the roles of teacher?
From the “Meno” cited above, it might seem that Socrates saw himself primarily as a questioner and a facilitator of the recollection innate gifts. “The dialogue form was probably invented by Plato” to portray the Socratic method, otherwise known as the dialectic.” (Huffman, 2005) The method known as the Socratic method of teaching, still practiced in many schools (particularly law schools) today, “consisted of asking questions like ‘What is courage?” of people who were confident of the answer. Socrates, claiming ignorance of the answers to the questions, would gradually show the people’s beliefs to be contradictory. Socrates did not answer his questions, though much could be learned from the course of the discussion.” (Huffman, 2005)
How will this philosophy guide the learning expectations in a classroom?
Using questions places the teacher in some authority, as the teacher directs the discussion through involved questioning. However, it also demands a great deal of preparedness and attentiveness on the part of the student, combined with a willingness to question what the student”s society may deem to be common sense. Students of innately high ability are supposed to continually excel, to justify the teacher”s expectations of the student’s gifts. Ultimately, this questioning of common sense doctrine resulted in the condemnation of Socrates for corrupting the youth of Athens and of questioning the piety of the Greek gods. (Huffman, 2005)
How will this philosophy exemplify the high standards of teaching?
On one hand, the Socratic dialectic may seem to be an equalizing form of philosophy. Anyone can answer the questions of the teacher. But because the method stresses student recollection, rather than the teacher”s ability to mold or impart knowledge upon a blank slate, it did not function as such in Socrates” actual practice. The Republic, the delineation of the ideal state, advances a tiered division of society, mimicking the division of the body into soul, heart, and lower regions-rulers are innately of the mind, warriors of the heart or hands, and laborers of the lower regions of the body. “Only those with a philosophical temperament, Plato supposed, are competent to judge between what merely seems to be the case and what really is, between the misleading, transient appearances of sensible objects and the the permanent reality of unchanging, abstract forms.” (Kemerling, 2002, Philsophy Pages, “Plato: Education and the Value of Justice”)
How will this philosophy address public expectations concerning student achievement? Accountability?
In the world of the Republic, students of high levels of ability do not necessarily have empowerment over their education. Although they are subjected to rigorous Socratic questioning, they are also kept away from members of other classes of society, and not permitted to be corrupted by fairytales and myths that could take them away from their innate gifts of purely understanding the nature of virtue and the world of the forms.
“Perhaps our best alternative, Socrates held, is to suppose that virtue is a (divinely bestowed?) true opinion that merely happens to lack the sort of rational justification which would earn it the status of certain knowledge,” and therefore virtue is unteachable. (Kemerling, 2002, “Plato: Immortality and the Forms-Doctrine of Recollection,” Philosophy Pages) Student achievement thus ultimately lies in the ability of the student, and the accountability of the teacher lies in his or her ability to select the correct student for the correct form of learning, rather than his or function as a teacher in the classroom.

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