ENGLISH 101. ACADEMIC WRITING
Instructions for Lesson 3
1. Read the short dialogue called "Euthyphro" from
Plato's Five Dialogues. Highlight the text and make
notes that will help you to write your essay on the character of Socrates in
Plato's dialogues rank with the Bible and Shakespeare as the most influential literary works in the history of western civilization, but in this course we have three particular reasons to read them:
Lots of online resources are available to help students to arrive at their own understandings of these dialogues:
Because Plato wrote in a foreign setting 2400 years ago, students at first are disoriented when entering his world. A bit of courage is needed to stand and fight for as much understanding as possible. Initially it may look like a struggle just to get through the next page. The easy solution, of course, is to drop your weapons and flee from the battle, while whining to yourself "I can't read this" or "who needs Plato anyway." If you hear voices like these urging you to quit and accept defeat, remember the first lesson--think positively. Don't despair. Tell yourself that you will succeed, that you will get it. Then work on getting it. You know that it must be possible because literally millions of people before you have succeeded in getting it. And nobody ever gets all of it on the first reading or two.
Legend says that Plato, as a young man, was a noted wrestler. The word "Plato" in fact was a nickname meaning "broad-shouldered." As you wrestle with his dialogues, think of Plato as a kind of bully who at first taunts you and calls you a mindless moron until you show some backbone and stand up to him. Once you hold your ground and fight, he will become your good friend for life.
2. How to Read
As a particular preventative to learning, public schools in New York State and other states instruct students not to write in the textbooks issued to them. This clean book policy is is educational malpractice. Marking up a text by making notes in the margins, underlining and highlighting key passages, is an invaluable aid to understanding. It allows students to repeat and reinforce their reading experiences at a glance, by skimming back over the texts that they have read. Also, the activity of writing registers in our brains far more powerfully than the passivity of mere eyeball reading. Do something, anything, with a book, besides stare at it, and the book will become far more memorable.
Your attention follows your hands. When reading for comprehension, read with one or more pens in hand. I like to use colored marking pens. I use a separate color to identify each major theme or issue that I notice and want to track in the text.
While reading "Euthyphro," for example, I used one color to highlight all of Euthyphro's various attempted definitions of piety and a second color for Socrates' responses. I used a third color to note the mythological references, like the story of Zeus and Kronos, and the mentions of Socrates' ancestor Daedalus and the shifty god Proteus. I used a fourth color to highlight segments of text that contain clues Socrates' character. (See my colorized copy of "Euthyphro.") I also scribbled notes in the margins and in the blank spaces of the book, before and after the dialogue.
Marking up the dialogue forced my attention on it. Sure, my mind daydreamed and wandered a little at times--but not as much as it would have if I had failed to mark up the book. Moreover, with my book in marked-up condition, I can now refresh my recollection of "Euthyphro" by glancing back through the highlights of the text. Skimming in this way is much easier than re-reading the dialogue again, and it's far more accurate than simply trying to recall the dialogue from unassisted memory.
Memory develops through repetition. Brain cells network with one another to form memories through a process called potentiation. When we encounter a new experience, networks of brain neurons are activated--but usually with only a weak bond. Reactivation occurs each time the same experience is encountered, and each reactivation strengthens the network bond until finally the cells are potentiated. We experience potentiation as easy recall or strong memory.
Neurology explains why studying really works, why students who take a "read once" approach to their books are outperformed in tests by students who repeat the lessons by making notes, reviewing them, scanning back over the book, or even re-listening to the lectures via tape recordings. Yes, some students go so far as to tape their classes. In fact, I was one of them, in my law school days. In some of the more dense courses that I took--Mortgages and Liens, Corporate Income Tax and the like--I came away with better grades than I had achieved in lower level, simpler courses. Why? In the advanced courses, I taped the classes and played them back prior to each test. No matter how lost I was during the prof's lectures in class, I became an expert after I had heard the tape two or three times!
Oh yes: I give my permission for each of you to audio tape this course! But here's a better idea: why not cut and paste highlights from these course pages into your own notebook or journal? You can start with a blank word processing file. If you collect some texts and play around with them on your own pages, you will be repeating the lessons and making them your own.
In Lesson 1, in my pep talk, I pointed out that communities of minds exchange common thoughts and feelings. I called them "networks," because science now is beginning to describe them as neural networks, but in the old pre-scientific days of yore when I was indoctrinated they were called "cultures." In any case, when we join a new cult or human community of any kind we start to be assimilated, to fit our thought into its mindset. We begin to build in our brains a new network over the top of the old networks that are decaying, the leftovers from our past experiences that are no longer being reinforced through repetition. The gradual transition from old mind to new mind is what we experience as orientation, which always begins as disorientation.
So where are we when we first arrive at college? "I don't think we're in Kansas any more, Toto."What's The Academy about, really? In a word, truth
We're all familiar with primary and secondary education, where the teacher exposes the students to conventional, standard or generally accepted thoughts. Receptive students absorb the words and repeat them back to the teacher. This "repeat-after-me" mimicry gradually builds a network of shared thoughts or cultural unity.
But it isn't the highest form of education--this transfer of words and thoughts from one brain to another, like the transmission of some contagious disease. Yes, imitative instruction of this kind is essential for technical training. (And we will do our share of it in this class--for example, when all of us learn the Modern Language Association's rules for academic writing.) But ultimately it is a limited model for adult mental development. It is limited because it assumes that the teacher's thoughts are true, and that the teacher knows all that the students ever will need to know.
If I tell you what I think, and you think whatever I tell you, we can call our common thinking "knowledge," but that doesn't mean that either of us really knows anything at all. The two of us are simply thinking alike, sharing a common network. Maybe we're only agreeing on a convenient lie or illusion, like the pre-scientific thought that thunderbolts are hurled from the sky by Zeus or that the sun revolves around the earth. Sooner or later, our lie will be exposed; our illusion will crash and burn.
Many ideas taught in schools twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, now have been discredited and abandoned. For example, in my training in biology, I was taught that all living things, at the most basic level, consist of protoplasm. Teachers made a big point about this, and it simply wasn't true. I was also taught MLA rules of academic writing--rules that later were thrown out and replaced completely by new ones. Some of the "knowledge" that you will acquire in college surely also will be trashed within the next few years. Will your education then become worthless?
we think that we know,
Ever since Socrates (469-399 BCE ), there has been a more fundamental level of education that asks what truth is, or that seeks to get at more of the truth than is presently known. This is "higher education," but it should not be left to nerds in graduate programs and advanced research institutions. It should be attempted by all of us who are capable of it. Unless you and I learn to think for ourselves, whose thoughts will we think? What network will have control of our minds? Whose dead brain will we know with?
Truth-seeking, not acceptance of received ideas, is the ultimate purpose of all advanced secular education, at least in western-style democracies. It was the purpose of the first Academy, the original think tank founded by Socrates' student Plato near Athens, in about 387 BCE. The novelty of Plato's Academy was that it offered learners a place where they could think for themselves and search for the truth through "dialectic" or reasoned argument with one another.
This new network of learners shared more questions than answers. Unlike other temples of wisdom that preceded it in the ancient world, the Academy was not an authoritarian organization designed to turn out students who had been indoctrinated to think alike. Plato was in charge as the top administrator, but in academic matters Aristotle and other fellow learners were free to disagree with him, or to disagree with anybody else, and to offer any and all proofs they could to support their positions.
This was the birthplace of academic freedom--that is, freedom to inquire into any subject without regard to any religious dogma, political propaganda or other official doctrine of society's vested interests or thought police. The model inquirer for the Academy was the hero of Plato's dialogues, Socrates. He was a serious and unorthodox thinker who claimed to be wiser than other Athenians only because he recognized that he didn't know anything at all.
The guy who died so that you could go to college
Socrates examined what others claimed to know, and he often succeeded in exposing their ignorance. His relentless questioning and criticism of all authorities attracted students but also drew enemies, especially among the inept leaders who presided over the ruins of the once-mighty Athenian Empire.
Athens had been the leading city-state in the Greek world, with an empire or "league" of tributary cities under its domination, but during the last years of Socrates' life, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War with the city of Sparta (431 BCE - 404 BCE). After the total destruction of its great navy, Athens was stripped of its colonies, its streams of tribute money, and its hoard of imperial treasure. The Spartans entered the city and tore down its protective walls. The building of the Parthenon, the presentation of new plays at the theater, and other public works of Athens' glory days stopped abruptly. The Athenians now began to fight among themselves; bloody street fighting erupted periodically as rival factions vied for power. The Spartans went home when they saw that the Athenians no longer posed a threat to anyone but themselves.
Athenian politicians needed to explain to the voters how this mess had happened--and, of course, how it wasn't the leaders' fault. That is, they needed scapegoats, and in 399 BCE, they bagged one. They convinced a jury that the gods had been punishing Athens because of Socrates' free thinking. Socrates had angered the gods, they claimed, by asking too many questions, even questioning the existence of the gods, and poisoning the minds of innocent young Athenians. At trial in the court of the high priest of Athens, Socrates denied any wrong-doing and refused to change his ways. A divided jury pronounced him guilty of impiety and sentenced him to death. He accepted his fate, drank a cup of poison, and died.
But Socrates' death didn't end the questioning, as his enemies had hoped. Within a few years after the infamous trial, Socrates' prosecutors in turn were executed or exiled from Athens. The embarrassed city tried to salvage its reputation as an intellectual center by erecting a public monument to Socrates and by granting Plato a plot of land on which to build the Academy. There, Plato kept Socrates' memory alive, including his practice of skepticism, the idea that we must never stop asking questions if we hope ever to know the truth. Plato's dialogues helped to train philosophers of all kinds, and suddenly the world had to cope with many Socratics instead of only one Socrates. (A "Socratic" is a follower or imitator of Socrates.) It was now impossible to stop the thinking!
Socrates was revered and imitated in the Academy, but he was not worshipped as a god or divine man or infallible prophet. This school was not connected to any religious temple or shrine. It was a break from the older religious model of education, typified in the mortuary temples of the Egyptian pharaohs. In these traditional places of learning, priestly scribes devoted their lives to the transmission of "knowledge" from generation to generation. Through the long centuries, they copied and maintained records about pharaoh, and preserved his mummified body and grave goods, because pharaoh was a god. Yet all of this wisdom about pharaoh's immortality is of serious interest today only to a few historians, archaeologists, and popular fantasy writers. Nobody past the age of fourteen supposes that there is any truth in it.
At times your undergraduate education may seem to be modeled on pharaoh's temple, not Plato's Academy. You'll memorize and repeat, read and rewrite your reading. This scribal style of learning is proper in the sense that we should learn what others have thought before we pronounce our own opinions. We should begin the search for truth with re-search, understanding the searches that others already have performed. But we miss the deepest, richest part of the academic experience if we merely absorb notions in school without ever asking about their validity or significance. In higher education, job number one is learning how to think, not what to think. This is Socrates' first lesson, and it can serve us well long after the particular thoughts that we have learned in school has been superseded.
Your opportunity to search for
You will have opportunities to search for truth in this course and in other college courses involving academic research. Keep Socrates in mind as you begin your explorations. He is a model investigator, even 2400 years after his death. We've only begun to meet him, but already we know some basic, potentially useful things about his method of investigation.
Socrates is not simply a literary character in a book. He's perhaps the most important teacher in all recorded history in the west because his methods formed the basis for higher education itself. Be Socratic. Approach academic research with an open mind, neither believing nor disbelieving what you read. Look for the most expert sources available, and be prepared to spend lots of time searching for information and analyzing what you find.
ask questions : get answers from experts : be skeptical
Image left: Athenian wrestlers with referees, cir. 525 BCE.
Left: homunculus image of the human body, with body parts in proportion to the brain mass that controls them. An extraordinarily large amount of brain is devoted to the hands. When eyes and hands work together, much more of the brain is engaged.
"Marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love" (Morimer Adler).
Frankenstein thought that a used brain would be good enough for his
pupil--pictured left--so he dug one up and plugged it in. The
results were only
Left: Plato and his student Aristotle, as they appear at the focal point in Raphael's The School of Athens. Notice how the two scholars point in different directions and do not see eye to eye.
Left: map of the Greek world when Socrates was middle aged. By the time of Socrates' trial, Athens had lost all of its league (shown in brown).