The longer we live, the more likely we are to fall into deep grooves of behavior. This comes about in our natures as surely as the green stick grows thick and woody. The flexible inquiry of youth becomes a stolid comfort of certitude, and people will note us as eccentric or dull; we will grow toward others or away. Not judging the merits of either for the moment, merely noting that a certain eccentricity in relation to those representing a vulgar solidarity is laudable, as is a contrary stone-like stolidity when lapped by the waves of the fickle sea of various opinion and tide of vacillating fancy, I say we examine our purpose when we discover these worn paths through the garden of our selves and make a conscious choice. We either re-cultivate that dirt worn footpath we have been inadvertently plodding along, or decide to purposefully pave it over as a profitable and pleasant direction of travel.
Whether this path goes anywhere other than through the garden where words may be exchanged in the pleasure of the soul’s evening, or through incisive streets toward action as directed toward labor, is not important. Cultivation as labor and pleasure is given to man, and those of us who are teachers charged with the cultivation of others should not, as the shoemaker’s sons do, travel barefoot. We should be conscious of why we are the way we are.
I was surprised on my own trodden path one day when I found myself flaring up in reaction to a perfectly entertaining proposition put up by an experienced colleague in the field of classical education. This startling up happened during a conversation that produced a change of attention, like that between snacking and biting at the words I heard, and I found myself fighting against both the idea presented and myself in instant instinctual objection and a bilious impulse to blurt out words of objection. Obviously one of my sensitive nerves had been touched, and being an overly talkative man with long experience of post conversational regret, I struggled to emulate Tacitus, both in name and posture, remaining quiet but writing furiously in my notebook.
What happened? Did someone deny the history of the resurrection? Did my excellent and experienced comrade champion ‘common core’ or the French Revolution? No, the proposition was something of the times, and could be considered harmless or even obvious as an assertion. She said something like “I’m not against technology in our schools.” No one gasped. I remained in my seat, meekly plodding behind the train of the idea. I did have a slight dialectic tic as I thought of the term ‘technology’ and its etymology, the categorical application of the word, and its common use, but this subsided and I remained in a quiescent if not receptive state of mind. My irrational intuition was already under control when the thunderclap followed.
“If Socrates were alive today, he would be on Facebook.” The jaws of my mind snapped reflexively shut. “Yes”, I thought, “and Bach wouldn’t have played the organ.” Now I rethought the first proposition that technology was good for our schools, thinking of the ahistorical reconstruction of Plato’s favorite talker. The school is made of students and teachers. When we think back to dinner parties of Plato’s dialogues, we think of the philosophers engaged in dialectic attracting crowds of wisdom enthusiasts. In a setting much like this one, Socrates himself (according to Plato) argued against the idea that technology was a good idea for the school, or at least the student. Oh most expert Thoth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are.In ‘Phaedrus’, Socrates chides a young student for merely reading a speech about love written by the popular speaker Lysias rather than discoursing about love itself. Socrates eventually reveals his suspicion of the written word itself as a technology that ruins the memory and fools people into thinking that they possess wisdom merely by possessing books. Memory is stunted as man more and more keeps things written rather than in his soul, and wisdom suffers because life no longer grows alongside these things planted in the heart. If you doubt this technological crushing of memory, simply try to remember a phone number or two. It isn’t only car manufacturing robots that threaten human occupations. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.
As educators, we must care about the formation of the soul in the student, but we must also care about the effectiveness and expertise of the student as that is understood in their own time. We need only compare Socrates in his rags and bare feet with Aristotle and his overflowing riches working for the king of Macedon to understand the choices involved between the purity and practicality of the life of the cultivated. Aristotle focused on the ‘doing’ amongst his students, as Socrates focused on the ‘knowing’. As Aristotle succeeded Socrates and Plato, so the western mode of ‘doing’ has characterized our education since. This has had geometrically expanding consequences for wisdom. A dilemma begins to form in the shape of a struggle for wisdom in our time that may grow and add to the available wisdom for the future, not atrophying in the face of prosthetic devices like smart phones or even books, but not receding from the border of effectual life either in a dreamlike retreat. We face, it turns out, the ravages of nature even in our interior lives as the struggle for survival continues even when man the animal is cared for in his comfort with ever-increasing certainty. Is there a way forward?