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Socrates, Pedagogy and the Importance of Character
In the Socratic dialogue The Meno, Socrates (469-399 BC), engages in conversation with a Greek slave. The question that guides the duscussion is: “Can virtue be taught”? In usual Socratic fashion, Socrates addresses the main question by leading his “pupil” in other areas of knowledge only to arrive at the original point. During this particular conversation Socrates includes concepts in geometry. As he begins to draw geometric figures in the sand while asking insightful questions, Socrates leads the slave to “recollect” the knowledge he always had concerning geometry. The slave is quite impressed with how Socrates led him to this knowledge, and refers to him as an “electric ray” who stuns him with perplexing questions, ultimately leading him to the correct answers. In other words, the pedagogy Socrates uses, i.e., a conversation led by a facilitator where questions are asked and answered, numbs the student in order for him or her to truly begin the learning process. The word “numbness” should be defined liberally. I view the feeling of numbness in the intellect as the experience of being challenged, perplexed, or jarred by a question or answer one was not expecting.
Educators need to possess the ability to intellectually challenge (numb) their students. They should also possess the necessary tools for this endeavor. Indeed, instructional technology, inquiry-based teaching, group work, class seminars--often referred to as Socratic seminars, class debates, independent work, etc., are vital programs our teachers must be knowledgeable about. They must always see that the acquisition of knowledge is a lifelong process, and that their students are on an intellectual and ethical journey.
Along with the noble goal of challenging students academically, comes the realization that the educator must allow the student to learn. Looking once again at Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), the noted German philosopher whose philosophical quest was to uncover the truth about ‘Being’, once remarked that “Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn.” Through a course of study students must “submit themselves to the demands and rigor of thinking” and the teacher must allow the student to become an independent thinker. This “independent thinking” can be looked at as the student delving into unknown territory. Meno once thought that he knew what ‘virtue’ was, but after listening to Socrates, he realized that he was unaware of the true definition. For me, this is an important start to the student’s educational experience.
Lastly, and most importantly, I consider the ethical journey of the student to be a vital part of his education. Indeed, I have said to faculty members countless times that we, as educators, need to promote character and academic achievement in a structured and nurturing environment. Furthermore, I support Thomas Lickona’s admonition that we need to “Teach as if Justice Matters”. In his important book CHARACTER MATTERS, Lickona argues that teachers must inform students about the problems facing the world, and even though they cannot solve these problems, they can inspire students to incrementally work for justice. School leaders should always strive to create schools where the teaching of character is at the forefront of the school’s mission.
Article posted March 3, 2010 at 10:52 AM •
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I agree that it is harder to teach than to learn. And you set a high, though important, standard for your educators to try to teach in a way promotes independent thought and character. Many might think the two are contradictory--that teaching character and virtue is a type of indoctrination that inhibits independent thought. But as you pointed out, it is through discussion on such topics as virtue in reference to our subjects that promotes personal reflection (hence independent thought).
Comment Posted on May 3, 2010 at 05:48 PM by
I love your blog! I discovered it last fall and have been a faithful reader ever since! Keep it up!
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I am the Dean of Academics at a private military school in central Missouri called Missouri Military Academy.
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