Profiles in Teaching: Socrates

Socrates is perhaps the Western World’s first notable teacher, or at least the first teacher for whom we have some reliable record of his teaching. Almost everything we know about him comes from two biographers: Plato and Xenophon. Almost no one pays attention to the latter. Plato’s portrait of Socrates, however, contains the enduring image of the rabble-rousing, Truth-seeking, shoeless eccentric. 

Socrates, who was Plato’s teacher, was executed by Athens in 399 BC after refusing an offer to go into exile. He did not believe he was guilty of the two main charges against him: questioning the existence of the gods and corrupting the youth. Instead, he defended himself in front of the Senate, was found guilty, and willingly drank the poison hemlock. Plato was allegedly in attendance that day and recorded what Socrates said. This is usually published under the titles “The Apology of Socrates” or “The Defense of Socrates.” Socrates appears as the main character in all of Plato’s writings. 

Here is some of what Socrates says during his defense: 

“I am better off than he is, for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know, nor think that I know.”  

“For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.” 

And, the very famous quotation: “The unexamined life not worth living.”

Here Socrates is celebrating humility, self-awareness, self-criticism, and spiritual development, while being critical of materialism, selfishness, and arrogance. 

You may have heard of the “Socratic” teaching style. Basically, this involves a long dialogue where the instructor poses difficult questions to challenge the students, often taking multiple sides (much like playing devil’s advocate) in order to force students to explore and question their basic assumptions, all for the purpose of arriving at some more elusive equation of truth. This is basically how Socrates acts in Plato’s writings. 

I think it’s good to be reminded that the foundation of Western education might begin with Socrates. Self-inquiry, exploration, deep questioning, and reflection are all part of his repertoire and should be part of our classrooms as well.

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