Plato Was an Incompetent Mook

08/06/2014 06:37 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2014

For three decades I have been wasting my students' time and their parents' money. The latest buzzing in the academic hive-mind drones loudly that the dance I have been doing in my seminar room will likely teach my students neither the direction nor the distance to the life-sustaining nectar of professional success. Maxima culpa.

The current press for either the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) or the Competency-Based Online Course (CBOC) makes clear that the old-style liberal arts colloquium has failed. My effort to engender in my students a capacity to engage in sustained and focused discourse with other specific individual human beings on matters of truth and morality doesn't pay. Pedagogy should be about glamour, like the after school specials by the research-one Queens of the MOOC, or it should be about grammar, like the Skinner-box instruction of the anonymous worker bees of the CBOC.

But here's the thing: the false dilemma -- gaudy queens or drab workers -- is nothing new.

The false educational choice makes its first appearance in Plato's Phaedrus, the most interesting discourse on pedagogy ever built.

Yong Phaedrus has just attended a MOOC given by Lysias, a research-one mega star, known in those days as a sophist. Phaedrus has just heard Lysias deliver the most seductive speech a lad could hear: a gaudily counter-intuitive paean on the rectitude of granting one's sexual favors not to someone who loves you but rather to someone who does not. When Socrates encounters Phaedrus, the youth is heading out of the city to memorize a copy of the talk, the scroll of which he carries under his cloak in his left hand.

The visual joke resonates through the dialog. Socrates treats the detachable phallic text as Lysias himself. The anonymity of the text's object equates sophistry and lust. Lysias' speech longs only to disseminate its germ, in both senses of the word. The medium is the message, again both senses. Lysias' real lusts -- for self-aggrandizement and monetary gain -- disregard the development of the soul of the youth. Like the kind of predatory ersatz educational experience offered by some online for-profits, Lysias' instruction less resembles pedagogy than pedophilia. For Plato the analogy is exact.

Socrates follows Phaedrus to the bee-loud glade outside the city gates of Athens. Well, not bee-loud but full of the singing of crickets. Socrates encourages Phaedrus' enthusiasm for clever argument, and by careful example shows him first, how the argument can be technically improved, the stuff of the CBOC, via the general rules of effective persuasion. Socrates balks midway because he has verged on making the obscene argument more effective.

He begins again, this time exampling how the more technically effective argument must be transformed so as to cultivate the lad's soul rather than exploit it. There follows a lengthy back and forth on the nature of the soul and how rhetoric, the art of using words to move the soul, can lend itself either to sophistry or to philosophy. If one comes to know the nature of someone's soul as well as the nature of the truth, and uses these insights to exploit that person, for economic, political, or sexual gain, then one acts the tyrant, and is a sophist.

If one works to understand the nature of the true, and the natures of one's own and the other's souls, and acts to cultivate both souls for their own good, then one acts in friendship, and is a lover of wisdom.

Socrates makes a couple of dazzling speeches, worthy of a MOOC. And his coverage of the basics is as specific and as detailed as any CBOC. Beneath a plane tree, beside a willow, the two men create a conversation about the ineffectiveness of both the MOOC and the CBOC -- in themselves -- to produce a citizen who really loves wisdom, whose actions serve the nurturing of the souls of fellow citizens, and who therefore can contribute to the preservation of the greater society.
Socrates knows his stuff and gives a great lecture. But most importantly he both bothers to and can understand his student's soul at a particular moment in time and therefore manages to lead the youth, and himself incidentally, to a more profound understanding of the nature of the soul, that peculiar amalgam of desire and rectitude.

Buzzwords aside, the problem is that the MOOC and the CBOC are not self-sustaining systems. A strategy which works for bees, whose civilization is sustained genetically, does not work for a society whose health is maintained by the innovative minds of its citizens. In the dystopian MOOC/CBOC social model, unlike a hive, a worker never morphs into a queen. Academic workers of the CBOC live their brief lives gathering the nectar and defending the hive -- which has come to mean balancing the institutional books -- of the academy. They will never get a taste of the royal-research jelly doled out by the big granting agencies which dictate research agendas.

If bees are social animals, they are so in the same way that electronic media are social. We are cultural; we are animals whose natural habitat is the polis. The apparently opposite extremes of the MOOC/CBOC system share a fundamental identity. Both suffer from the fact that they are not a living human mind; thus they cannot cultivate living human minds.

Somewhere between the clouds of glamour and the rocks of grammar lives the breathing world of thought. The complex realm where the simple extremes interact, from which all innovation and advance arises, is effectively sustained by neither extreme, nor by any combination of the two. In between the two lives the meeting of minds.

American society, like the American university, is not a hive. The hive mind is not adequate to cultivation of the individual minds of citizens which will produce even the queens and workers of the next generation, let alone the essential citizens. The result will be the cultural equivalent of hive collapse.

The classroom has to be a collaboration, not a one-way transfer, however technologically mediated, but a mutual exchange. One's students teach one how to be a teacher. Real education is bespoke, outside the apiary box.

Socrates follows Phaedrus to the cricket-loud glade outside the city gates of Athens, where they engage in a conversation about the ineffectiveness of both the MOOC and the CBOC to produce a citizen who really loves wisdom and is therefore able to contribute to the preservation of the greater society, whose actions serve the nurturing of the souls of its citizens.

Plato has Socrates acknowledge the worth of grammar and glamor. He mentions the basics of argument, and the authors whose books detail these elements. He acknowledges as a given that one should know the stuff that can be conned by rote from textbooks, his equivalent of what we can glean in the CBOC. And while Socrates is concerned with demonstrating that Lysias' glamorous recorded speech -- the Greek world's MOOC -- corrupts real education, the speech itself -- and Phaedrus' initial enthusiasm for it -- serve as immediate pretext for considering how seductive grandstanding differs from the cultivation of the individual psyche. Competency-based instruction may cover the basics, and the frisson afforded by the star system of the MOOC may initially motivate the student. For the purposes of liberal education, the former is but a preliminary and the latter, ultimately, the stuff of mooks.

When my students and I teach each other Phaedrus, we begin by careful mastery of the details of the text, assessed by an hour-long short-answer examination, and we end with an utterly showboat public performance of it. But most importantly, in the weeks in between we struggle through a living give-and-take to open one another's souls to the nature of the true. We learn something of the virtue of friendship and fortify ourselves against the tyrannies of political and commercial manipulation. Perhaps we even come to savor a lifetime given to the beautiful interplay of truth and the edification of all our souls. For what it's worth, despite this, they typically go on to successful careers, though less often in the service of tyranny. This is what we mean by the word formation.