Effectiveness: The irony of Socrates and the child

Please welcome guest blogger Dr. Scott Merrill, who teaches courses on Existentialism, Anthropology, and Religion at Plymouth State. Scott is a new-comer to contemplative pedagogy. For the past year he and I have been enjoying conversations about eastern and western concepts of “the self,” the role of “humility” in teaching and research, and all things philosophical. His readings of western thinkers such as Plato and Nietzche dialog well, I think, with some of the ideas contemplative educators bat around. Here are some of Scott’s recent musings on how some of our most effective teaching moments can occur when we are most ignorant.

A “beginner’s mind” is like that of the child’s in Nietzsche’s The Three Metamorphoses. This child, after having gone from being a camel, and then a lion, finally utters a “sacred yes” without the burden of preconception and without the social pressures to conform that adults often confront.

I sometimes see this open mind in my six year old when he is playing with questions of life after death or wondering whether he would rather have one hundred friends or one hundred movies to watch. He creates his own answers and shapes his world according to what brings him joy. He wills his own will freely. One of the features of this type of mind is that it can coexist with irony and contradiction. Socrates, who plays the role of teacher and student, serves as an archetypal model for this.

I would like to think that I have an open mind but when I read Plato’s dialogues I encounter myself siding with the sophists at times; I understand why Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the youth. I want the quick fix sometimes; Socrates is frustrating and his irony can be predictable. As a teacher I often want to bear the camel’s burden of seeking knowledge without help and in the classroom I  want to be right, like the lion fighting dragons with “thou shall” emblazoned on its scales, claiming small victories perhaps but lacking in lightness and an ability to connect.

Sometimes I ask myself if I’m an effective teacher. I don’t stress effectiveness in my teaching. When I begin a class I’m not asking myself, “ok, so what are my desired results, goals and outcomes?” I am mostly asking whether my class will be more curious about themselves and some of the ideas they encounter before they took the class.

Effectiveness, after all, can be an elusive term. It could mean different things depending on how the term is defined and in what context. For instance, a math teacher explaining the rules involved in balancing an equation might not have the same definition of “effective” as a philosophy teacher discussing the concept of justice. The math teacher can utilize symbols and rules in order to demonstrate truth whereas the philosophy teacher must often engage in irony and paradox. Equations, once solved, provide something close to certainty. Ethical debates about justice rarely, if ever, do.

Effectiveness is a popular term in our little academic realm and evaluations and student’s grades are often provided as measures of this. Tenure and teaching awards are based on it. What I’d like to know is whether there is a general definition of effectiveness that crosses disciplinary boundaries? I believe there is, if we use the model of Socratic openness and compassion as a measure.

Socrates was described as a midwife and a gadfly. He is the great ironist who maintains his ignorance in order to allow others to recollect what they already know; it was his ability to do this well which, according to Plato, led to many enchanting afternoons and eventually to his execution.

Plato’s Phaedrus includes a discourse between Socrates and Phaedrus, who he calls his Divine Darling, on a range of topics including rhetoric, love, and metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls. What interests me right now aren’t these subjects in themselves but the way Socrates engages with Phaedrus affectionately and uncompromisingly in their long conversation.

Before the dialogue begins there is some hesitancy on the part of Phaedrus to begin speaking. He has just heard a discourse about love by Lysias and is reluctant to recite what he knows because he has only a general recollection of the argument. Eventually, it’s revealed by Socrates that Phaedrus is hiding it under his cloak and Phaedrus agrees to read it.

The two then seek a place to sit. They choose a broad leafed Plane tree, platanos, (this is a semantic play on Plato’s name, derived from platys, both words referring to broad). Even while being absent, Plato is present.

Before getting to the dialogue there is another delay. Socrates reminds Phaedrus of an altar to Boreas nearby and Phaedrus asks whether he believes in the myths surrounding this God of the North Wind. Socrates knows quite a bit but tells Phaedrus he has no “leisure” for such “concerns” and that to be curious about these things, while still ignorant of himself, would be “ridiculous.” This is an example of Plato ’s dramatic irony in the form of a set up. Socrates is emphasizing the Delphian inscription to “know thyself,” which is the starting point for knowing anything. Socrates is reminding Phaedrus that while delving into the abstract can be important for understanding human nature and the mythical world, one should first know what it means to be a better person. For instance, a person able to engage in the type of dialectical conversation that Socrates values more than mere rhetoric.

Throughout this dialogue I’m reminded of how Socrates balances wisdom with compassion, playfulness and humor, as with his comment of being in a “Bacchic Frenzy” after hearing Phaedrus first speak, to which the later reminds him to please not joke. I’m reminded of myself as a student in that stage of life coming into contact with certain teachers whose patience, humor, and care I owe a great debt. I’m also reminded to maintain an ironic sense of humor myself. There is some small comfort, after all, in blaming those same professors who provided encouragement for the student loan debts and the piles of papers to grade. Yes, I chose these punishments after all. As did Socrates, ultimately, when he drank the hemlock.

I’ve been thanked by students over the years. I’ve been told that my courses have made them think about things from new perspectives. That such and such a course was their favorite. Sometimes these moments of gratitude come years later; sometimes they come in the form of evaluations. They always surprise me. When provoked to remember specific classroom discussions or office visits, I recall being open and eager to learn from students in these moments. I recall their faces, their curiosity, details they spoke of about family and friends, relationships and the complexities of their lives.

I’m reminded in these unofficial evals that my effectiveness depends on how well I forget my ego and become more like the student. I’m reminded of Socrates and the child. I’m reminded of the importance of living with and finding hope in contradiction.

I could do better.

Scott Merrill, Ph.D., is a teaching lecturer in Philosophy and Social Science at Plymouth State University. About his research, Scott says, “I find an existential approach to social phenomena to be valuable because it allows me to examine society through the lens of the individual, as opposed to more traditional (and limiting, in my opinion) social scientific approaches. Examining people and behavior this way has allowed me to engage personal interests and experiences seriously. Some of those interests were written about in my dissertation “Transcendent Transgressions: Exploring the Limits of Edgework” and include the role of transgression in creating authenticity and meaning, religious experience, embodied forms of transcendence, and risk taking.”


Words Matter: Authentic Learning

Authentic Learning” seems to be a collection of techniques and practices whereby students “learn by doing.” This year our January professional development event featured a presentation on “Authentic Learning.” Last week during a faculty meeting a dean off-handedly invoked this phrase.

I deeply appreciate (another) call to active learning, to moving beyond memorization and multiple choice tests. But I worry about the short-hand, about the way this phrase can be interpreted by students (and faculty and staff!).

If an instructor calls what students do in one class “authentic learning,” then other kinds of pedagogies and practices could be seen as… inauthentic. Let’s not create this kind of divide.  It’s too much like advisors telling students to get their Gen Eds out of the way.

From sustained explorations of (i.e. longer articles on) “Authentic Learning,” I see how my pedagogies and practices have a place within such a paradigm.* But many short overviews or bite-sized descriptions of “Authentic Learning” offered by a quick internet-search tend to focus on one point: “Authentic activities culminate in the creation of a whole product valuable in its own right.” Sometimes the main pitch for “Authentic Learning” revolves around students’ capacity to create a “useful, tangible product” as the measure of “Authentic Learning.”

A “product” is, generally, something we manufacture, buy, and sell. If we start telling students that “authentic learning” results in the creation of a “product,” we will be doing a huge disservice to them. Sure, a portfolio of creative or critical work, developed through reflection, revision, and collaboration could be called a “useful, tangible product,” but only with a certain degree of finesse or violence to the common definition.

Words matter.


*I do have concerns about how externally focused this paradigm is, but I’ll write about that another time!