A reflection on Plato’s Meno
Humans have long passed on experience from one generation to the next through imitation, songs, stories and, relatively recently, through written texts. And as our societies have become more complex the potential range of information that can be passed from teacher to pupil has grown exponentially. This has resulted in vicious debates as to what role this passage of knowledge, more commonly known as education, plays in our culture – and what responsibility a society or family has in educating their youths. To comment intelligently on this topic, I believe it is important to first show the different types of education which make up the whole and then to ask the question as to what form this schooling should take.
The first type of schooling is our primary education. This is the customs, traditions, language, grammar and a basic understanding of our societies laws that we receive from our parents, family, friends and fellow citizens. This provides the cultural knowledge required for us to interact with fellow members of society and to go about our lives without transgressing the legal or cultural taboos that would result in our death, imprisonment or ostracisation. Unfortunately, this is also the education, or acculturation, that inflicts upon us the idols of our society, the underpinning assumptions which can mislead our own intellectual development.
The second form of education is vocational in nature. This is the skills required to allow us to perform a specific role within our society deemed worthy of compensation. Such skills can be of low or menial origin in the eyes of a culture, such as janitorial or gardening duties, or accorded high prestige, like doctors and lawyers. This class of education also includes all forms of domestic tasks that require practice to prevent a person’s own health, family or property falling into decay: cooking, cleaning, stewardship and exercise. With both a primary and vocational education, a person is capable of engaging in the necessary acts to be a functioning ‘citizen’: contributing to the cultural momentum that keeps the wheel of society rolling. However, this alone is not enough to allow a person to grow intellectually.
The final form of education is academic. This is the education which forces us to turn inwards, on ourselves and our societies, and contemplate. This sort of schooling is less the transferring of knowledge from one generation to the next, but an invitation to dip our toes into the stream of inquiry, to overturn the certainties of yesterday. Although no investigation can be productively conducted without due regard to the efforts of our predecessors, academic education teaches us not to cleave too strictly to these certainties, but instead to ask ourselves if they indeed hold the value they proclaim as their own.
One of the most significant issues facing modern societies is that, with the opening up of formal education to the masses, there is a tension between schools of thought as to what form education should take. For some, schooling is a public expense, and as such should focus on the primary and vocational aspects: creating law-abiding citizens who contribute economically to society. More esoteric thinkers argue that this method of thinking is a sure way to stagnation and that academic education is something that should be woven throughout a person’s entire schooling. Even more radical thinkers ascribe the primary aspect of instruction as an impediment to realising the potential of all citizens. Their prescription to solve this is the replacement of dominant traditions and culture by unrepresented thinkers – generally from outside the society in question or at the fringes of a particular civilisation.
To these arguments, I think two issues need to be raised. Firstly, there is some merit in teaching people ‘how’ to think, rather than ‘what’ to think, in the academic model. If the citizenry of a state is ensconced in the iron bonds of culture, then intellectual or societal development is impossible. Although such hyper-conservatism can proof a society against internal divisions, it also leaves it vulnerable to external challenges, natural or man-made. Secondly, no matter how much education you force down the throat of an unwilling participant, the most significant part of academic schooling needs to be self-education. It is up to an individual to read the texts, engage in debate and open themselves and their opinions to criticism. Formal education is the necessary light which shows us the path, but from that point on it is up to us to continue the journey into the vast unknown.
François-André Vincent, Alcibades being taught by Socrates, 1776