Monday, May 09, 2022

Recognizing Gods Not Authorized



In 399 BC, Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy and arguably the most famous teacher in history was put to death by Athenian authorities for being "an evil-doer and curious person, searching into things under the earth and above the heaven; and making the worse appear the better cause, and teaching all this to others." He was likewise accused of corrupting youth and of recognizing gods not authorized by the state.

It's hard to not hear echoes of these accusations in the vilification being heaped on today's educators, many of whom have been threatened with death. While surveys consistently find that more than 80 percent of parents express support for the teachers they know (i.e., the ones teaching their own children), there is an increasingly loud hue and cry coming from those who believe that we are corrupting youth by allowing them to see that the world is far more vast and varied than their "authorized gods" would have it. It's a view that declares there is but one true perspective and that to consider any perspective other than the orthodox one is to stray into evil-doing.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Socrates as a philosopher and teacher was his consistent assertion that despite his reputation as the wisest man in Athens he himself knew nothing. His wisdom did not consist of certainty, but rather in questioning, which is to say to look at all things, even the most sacred, from all sides, and to know that there was always another perspective he had not considered. This is what frightened the authorities of Athens and this is what frightens people about teachers today.

Throughout my educational life, I've been cautioned about the Western centering of "dead white men," a notion that Socrates, the original dead, white man, would have whole-heartedly endorsed. The Socratic Method (as practiced by Socrates) is a process of constant questioning in which there is no final, correct answer, but rather more questions. It's a process that seeks to forever approach truth even if it must be acknowledged that complete truth will always elude us. And it means that a truly wise person is one who will question the authorized gods. They don't have to reject the status quo, but if it can't be questioned, then we have a problem.

This, at least, is my goal as an early childhood educator. I happily confess to knowing nothing, or at least nothing that I need or want the children to know. What I want instead is to give children the space and autonomy to ask and answer their own questions, in their own way, and on their own schedule, and when that answer is no longer useful or relevant, I want them to know that the way forward is to seek out new perspectives.

This was always going to be the problem with self-governance. There will always be those who are afraid to question the authorized gods. It's become common to assert, in exasperation, that we've never lived in more divided times, but this is simply not true: there have always those who have stood athwart history yelling stop, while the rest of us have questions that cannot be answered within the status quo. This has been true of Western civilization since there has been Western civilization. 

Famously, Socrates himself was suspicious of the phonetic alphabet. "The discovery of the alphabet," he said, "will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written character and not remember of themselves . . . You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing." We know he said this because his student, Plato, was writing it down. Indeed, everything we know about Socrates comes through the written word. In other words, even the namesake of the Socratic Method could find himself standing with the authorized gods when confronted with something new.

Of course, this doesn't mean the Socrates was wrong. It's hard to imagine our world without literacy of the phonetic alphabet, but perhaps, as a species, we would be better off if we relied more on our memories than on the written word, which itself has become a kind of orthodoxy that boxes us into a mere 26 letters and a few marks of punctuation. Indeed, to question the value of literacy today, especially as a teacher, might not get you killed, but it will get you fired. By the same token, teachers who dare to entertain questions about the impact of race and gender on society and individuals are being accused of corrupting youth, labeled as "evil-doers," and threatened with termination or worse.

If you are expecting to arrive at this point in my little essay and find me advocating for some sort of balance, you will be dissatisfied. There is no balance here when it comes to our schools. From where I sit, if schools are not places of questioning, then they have no valid purpose. If they are not about the exploration of questions, they are mere factories for the manufacture of unquestioned adherence to the authorized gods, which will, in the end, destroy any chance we have at self-governance.

"(T)he life that is unexamined is not worth living," says Socrates in defense of himself. That examination begins with the idea that we know nothing and must therefore be free to question all things, not to create new authorized gods, but rather to prove, yet again, how little we know.

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