In the first few pages of Plato’s Republic we catch Socrates walking his star pupil, Glaucon, up and away from the Piraeus, the port city attached to Athens. They had gone down there because they had heard a new goddess was being introduced. That goddess’ inaugural festival would include a horse race where torches would be passed back and forth between two riders. This was an innovative way to celebrate a god. It was a NEW and EXCITING way to celebrate. Many people were interested, including our wise protagonists.
So, why was this race held in the port city of Pieraeus instead of within the confines of Athens?
There’s a lesson in here for us teachers. Port cities are places where foreigners and the new and strange ideas first make their way into the “homeland” of tradition. Port cities tend to be raucous because there are so many competing ideas of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and so on. The homeland is where you find stability and tradition (not bad things at all, mind you). There is tension between port cities and the homeland that they serve.
Port cities require more security, more infrastructure and more laws if new items and ideas entering the homeland are to be evaluated effectively.
Back in the day, the new (not always the best as we assume these days) had to be kept at arms length until it could be evaluated or “homogenize” before being allowed to enter the mainland.
With technology, we have access to, quite literally, the entire planet. Not only is each town or neighborhood a potentially port, but our students who carry iPhones are now port cities.
Think about how revolutionary this is. Each student has direct access to all of the good and bad humanity can offer. Every second of every day, they have this. Without parents or teachers keeping watch, they can make their way to dozens of new goddesses being introduced periodically or they can access the new devils hiding in the shadows.
It’s quite a responsibility. Socrates, after all, walked with his adult student to the port city to watch a very specific event and then walked all the way back home with his student (well, until an unruly mob stopped them…but never mind that for now). They watched the torch race, talked about it as they returned, and evaluated the entire experience together…which eventually lead to a discussion of JUSTICE in society (thus Plato’s Republic was born).
While parents have to keep an eye on a few of their own kids at most, we educators are being asked to do this with 30 to 180 students daily. We all have our work cut out for us. Technology, like most things, isn’t good or bad in or of itself. Ports are as much full of wonder as they are full of danger. We have to be responsible guides and visit those places before we ever walk our students there.
Ah, but students can walk themselves there without us…while they’re at home or on the school bus or at lunch.
Then we must take another page from Plato, Socrates had a “voice” a daemonion that told him when he was about to do something bad. Along with their parents, we need to instill that voice (that digital citizenship) that keeps students from walking to these wondrous and dangerous places on their own. We’re all experiencing this new era of technology together, adults and students, but adults have the cynicism necessary to be cautious. Students tend to be wide-eyed and ready to jump into the deep end of the pier immediately.
I don’t mean to suggest that we shy away from technology. But, let’s not also pretend like there aren’t pitfalls or potential tragedies in store for us. Every child who has access to the internet can potentially walk to hundreds of Piraeus’ on his/her own with out the guidance of a Socrates. The mob that stops Socrates and Glaucon were eventually thwarted by Socrates’ genius. Could Glaucon have defended himself? Can our students afford to be enticed by a horse race or a new goddess without some guidance and end up on a bad website?
As Socrates tends to suggest in most of his dialogues (at least on the surface), we all need a dependable guide who’s “been there.” This is the danger of educators who shun technology while students rush as quickly as possible to meet that new incoming iShip they see on the horizon.