Written Assignments

Socrates and Education


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The Apology of Socrates

Socrates

   You have just finished looking over early Greek philosophy ending with Socrates. While Socrates effected perhaps the most profound shift in philosophical thinking in Greece, it's obvious that it didn't go over too well because he was put to death.

   But Socrates completely changed classical education; by the time of the Roman Republic, in fact, Socrates's skepticism became the dominant aspect of classical education in Greece in Rome. In particular, Socratic skepticism led to the single most popular educational exercise in Roman and Greek schools, arguing in utremque partem , or arguing both sides of a question. Here's how it worked. The teacher gave the students a question that has two sides, for instance, "Was Polyphemos justified in eating Odysseus and his men?" One student would be assigned one side of the question (Polyphemos was justified) and another student was assigned the other side of the question. They would then prepare their arguments and then publicly argue the case in front of the rest of the class. Then they had to switch sides, that is, the first student would have to argue the position opposite his own while the second student also took a position opposed to his first. In other words, each student had to argue both sides of the question. It didn't matter which side was right, all that mattered was which student could successfully argue both sides of the question

   While this is a far cry from what Socrates had in mind, you can see it starts from the same foundation: that nothing is certain. If nothing is certain, that means that there is no right or wrong answer to any question; there are only well-argued answers and poorly argued answers.

   Your job in this Internet debate is to take a position at Socrates's trial: is he guilty of the charges brought against him or is he innocent? In other words, I want you to serve as either a prosecuting attorney or a defense attorney. However, you don't get to choose your side (if I had to choose a side, I'll admit that I agree with all those that voted to condemn Socrates—anybody with a PhD and tenure who says that they wouldn't vote against Socrates is lying). Instead, your side will be assigned to you. If your first name begins with an odd-numbered letter (a,c,e,g,i,k,m,o,q,s,u,w,y), then your job is to prosecute Socrates, that is, to construct a convincing argument why he should be found guilty of the charges that Meletus and company have brought against him. If your first name begins with an even-numbered letter (b,d,f,h,j,l,n,p,r,t,v,w,z), then I want you to act as Socrates' defense attorney, that is, I want you to persuasively argue that Socrates is innocent of the charges brought against him.

Socrates

   The only evidence you can use to make your argument are the words that Socrates speaks in his own defense; in other words, your only evidence you can use is the text of The Apology. If you are prosecuting Socrates, you must then use Socrates's words against him. Does he prove the allegations against himself? Does his answer show that he is, indeed, underming the moral character of Athens? If you are defending Socrates, then you have to use his words to prove that the charges are groundless.

   The whole issue revolves around Socrates's relentless questioning. His basic position is that no-one knows anything at all except himself, and he knows one and only one thing: that he knows nothing. As a result, he has spent his life questioning people. He continues to asks questions until he catches them in a contradiction or inconsistency, at which point he's proven that they don't know the answer. This is a radically skeptical position; imagine going home for Thanksgiving and proving to your parents that every thing they know and every opinion they have is wrong. That's what Socrates did. So the heart of your essay or argument will revolve around this radical questioning: does such radical skepticism and questioning undermine society and morality, or does it improve society and morality?

On Education

   After you've made your argument, I want you to continue your discussion of the validity of Socrates's project, whether or not you're for or against the unrestricted questioning of values and knowledge in the first part of this debate. I want you to apply that discussion to the education you're receiving now. From your standpoint on Socrates and his philosophical methods, what are the deficiencies of your education as you're receiving it now? How do you account for those deficiencies? In order to give your essay focus, I want you to concentrate on a single course that you're taking right now (I would encourage you to discuss a class other than this one so that you can pull out all the stops), and focus on one of two things: a.) lectures or b.) the textbook.

Grading

160;  To do well, you will need a.) a clearly stated thesis that outlines your position on the Socratic philosophy and its social consequences and how you apply this to your education; b.) a discussion of Socrates that uses the text of the Apology as evidence; c.) application of the details of that discussion to your experience in a class. You will essentially take one of two positions: classes should be more Socratic or less Socratic in outlook and method.

Terminology

   As in the previous Internet quiz, I want you to employ relevant terminology that you've learned in class, in the glossary, in the textbook, or in the primary readings. In your early essays, you dealt with sophisticated ideas; you are, however, learning the "names" of those sophisticated ideas and you should begin employing them.

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