Guiding students to answer their own questions: Plato’s Meno
Plato’s curriculum could be summarized as “Education as Constructive Frustration”.
On the surface many of Plato’s dialogs seem either frustratingly heavy or seemingly simplistic. Plato, at any rate, was a teacher. However, he was an ironic teacher. Teachers want to reveal, but ironic teachers compel students to learn via struggle. For example, they may reveal by veiling a lesson behind obvious contradictions within a project, reading, or conversation. The contradictions are obvious, but the solutions may not be. Like lifting weights, the growth happens in the struggle.
In the same sense that we expect a topic to be covered to different depths in first grade versus twelfth grade, Plato tries to do the same in his writings. His teachings are revealed only to certain readers and only when they are ready. Plato is a teacher who want to teach, but knows that he will not always be there for his students. Plato, then, has to write in a manner that will reveal the proper lesson to the proper pupil at the proper time even if he is no longer there to guide that student. He was one of the first teachers to scaffold for different learners :).
Plato’s Meno opens up with a pupil asking Socrates to teach him virtue. Meno, the adult student, wants to lead a good life or at least know how to recognize good action. It can be assumed that one who asks a question either does not know the answer to the question or has doubts about his answer or doubts the teacher. By conversing with Socrates, Meno is implicitly admitting that Socrates has something he wants: some sort of answer…a road to completion.
Like a good teacher, Socrates almost immediate turns the conversation around so that Meno is talking. Again, Meno wants to be told an answer and very quickly Socrates convinces Meno that Meno knows more (ie. Meno holds the key to his own answers)! Meno then starts to tell Socrates what virtue is. The trap is set & the growth begins.
Socrates shows Meno that Meno can answer his own question with the right guidance (and the reader, by extension is being taken on the same ride). The absence of an overt answer puts us in Meno’s position. We are now Socrates’ student as well. (Plato is our teacher even though he’s not here.)
Socrates, the wisest man in Athens according to the Oracle of Delphi, is claiming to be confused about the nature of wisdom. We should pay some attention to the fact that the expert is listening to a lesser soul answer his own question. A god (or at least the Oracle…the god’s mouthpiece) has told Socrates that he is the wisest man in Athens. What does the wisest man in Athens do when he is asked by a less wise person? He listens to the less wise person as he (Meno) answers Socrates’ questions which are really Meno’s own questions reformulated.
Socrates is leading Meno to wisdom while Socrates claims (on the surface) he doesn’t know what wisdom is and Meno doesn’t even catch it! The teacher is letting the student lead himself, but the teacher is also a more advanced student guiding a less advance student. Meno wants to be told what wisdom is, but Socrates leads Meno to wisdom instead (ie. Having knowledge about medicine not make one healthy just as having knowledge concerning wisdom does not make one wise. Action must be taken to close the loop.). The danger here is that if Meno doesn’t realize what is happening then he will not know that he is being lead to a higher ground. If Meno doesn’t realize what is happening, then maybe he’s not ready for the answer!
Here, Plato reveals a central problem of education and educating. How does a wise person lead an unwise person to wisdom? Wisdom is not a material thing that is physically passed from one person to another. Wisdom is an immaterial thing. This problem can be expanded to teaching nearly any subject at the highest levels.
Maybe the transfer of wisdom can be done via demonstration?
Socrates calls Meno’s slave boy over to “teach him” geometry in order to further instruct Meno. Meno is taken aback. How can a slave know high level math? Eventually, via questioning, Socrates gets the boy to demonstrate some basic geometry and algebra. The uneducated slave draws lines and shapes in the dirt with a stick according to Socrates’ questions. Meno is astounded!
If geometry can quickly be taugh to a slave-boy, then why can’t wisdom or virtue be taught to a superior thinker like Meno?
Another demonstration is in order.
Enter Meno’s pal, the emotional Anytus. Socrates tries to lead him like he did the slave boy, but Anytus is too resistant to learning. Anytus is an emotional being who gets offended by Socrates’ questions. To question is to admit an emptiness, but Anytus is too full of himself to admit any lacking. How can a teacher teach if the student is unwilling to listen?
Socrates turns the conversation to identifying the teacher of virtue. Anytus misunderstands Socrates over and over and gets more and more irritated. Anytus cannot be lead to demonstrate anything near what the open minded slave boy did. This student wants to be told the answers, but the teacher is unwilling. Education is uncomfortable for this student. Anytus wants propaganda.
I will stop here, but please read the rest of the Meno on your own when you can…
A Further Look
Plato likes to write on multiple levels at the same time. Yes, this dialog can be a stand alone story. Plato, however, likes to employ reflections of his “tripartite soul” analogy in many of his writings.
Plato divides “souls” into three sections: the logos (or thinking part), the thumos (or passionate/spirited part) and the epithumae (lower urges…sex, hunger, animal drives).
In the Meno, Anytus is incarnation of the lower bodily urges. He reacts emotionally to what Socrates has to say (later on he is one of the principal accusers at Socrate’s trial who eventually gets Socrates put to death!). Not only does he not understand what our wise man is saying, but he wants to hurt Socrates for confusing him so much. Meno is the incarnation of thumos. Meno wants to learn and is really dedicated, but just can’t get up to Socrates’ level. He’s the good soldier. He’ll stick to the plan even if he doesn’t understand it. Finally (I hope you’ve figured it out), the slave boy is the incarnation of the logos!!! That’s why he was the only one who could be lead by Socrates to achieve any progress in this dialog. But, that begs, why is the logos enslaved?!
Anytus, Meno, and the slave boy encapsulate the tripartite soul of a single human type!
This person is very close to his animal urges, realizes that they lead him into trouble, and wants to get away from them. Since his logos is enslaved to his spirit (the slave boy works for Meno), this tripartite person cannot overcome his lower urges because his logos is weak. And his logos is weak because his will (thumos) is so strong. He is ego driven and hard headed.
Socrates (who represents a right thinking teacher) can strengthen the slave boy (enslaved logos) and inspire him to act, but as soon as Socrates leaves the enslaved logos will go back to being enslaved to the spirit/heart. What Meno needs is a culture or tradition of education that will support and guide him from the outside when his ego is pushing him in the wrong direction from the inside.
If Meno was taught to answer his own questions when he was young then maybe the slave boy could be his guide instead of blindly relying on his more carnal instincts. Meno likes Anytus because Anytus inflames his passions, while the slave boy is too weak by now to show him the way to a more balanced life. With Socrates in the picture, the slave boy (again, logos) instructs Meno. Socrates, however, will soon be dead.
Education As Constructive Frustration
Socrates can show the spirited part of a student that education is the way out of the rut, but without Socrates constantly around, the spirited person falls back into his old habits.
This is why uniformly applied policies are needed in education. Whether it is a tardy policy, late work policy, uniform policy, etc. those with impressionable logos will need a good culture to reinforce the virtue that a it is attempting to obtain. The kids Meno/spirit is strong, but too influenced by their Anytus/emotions. Our job as educators is to strengthen that little enslaved logos. Parade it in front of Meno and Anytus. Demonstrate in front of them the need and usefulness of a strong logos/slave boy. We do this with open ended questions that inflame and frustrate our student’s egos, but work-out and strengthen their logos.
Children’s emotions are already strong and we should not emphasize a curriculum that seeks to overemphasize an already powerful current. It should be the other way around, the logos should instruct emotion. Meno and the slave boy should teach Anytus to calm down and fall in line. Too often though, it is Meno and Anytus that re enslave the boy. Do we stir up emotion in our students so that they are lead by it when we are not around?