The Socrates Syndrome Questions That Should Never Be Asked By David Campbell I am afraid that I suffer from the Socrates Syndrome. I ask questions that many people think should never be asked. Often people don‟t like what I have to say. Very often they would probably like to shoot the messenger or strangle him or do him some other sort of harm. On occasion, I have found myself among a group of “reformers” at a conference or at a “restructuring” meeting, where everyone is intensely engaged in discussing how to raise standards and require students to take more math. “How about making algebra required for graduation from high school?” one earnest participant asks. A thoughtful discussion ensues regarding how much algebra should be required and whether we ought to be “really” raising the standards to include trigonometry or calculus. I try my best to remain just a disinterested observer, but it is difficult for me (though I have gotten better at it over the years). Yet, when my resistance finally disintegrates, as it often does, I have to ask the Socratic question: “Tell me, what is so important that everybody must know it? Not just an elite 20% and certainly not just academic types – that is, us. And not just those who are word people or those who learn easily and well. But what is essential for everyone?” That is always the wrong question, and asking it makes me immediately suspect if not unwelcome in the group. To judge from the reactions of listeners, I might have told the ultimate off-color joke. Their brief embarrassment is usually followed by irritation at being diverted from the noble task of raising academic standards. Then someone always asks me to answer my own question. In good Socratic fashion, I admit that I don‟t know for sure, although health and physical fitness probably come closest. That is definitely not the answer anyone wants to hear. I sometimes toss in getting along with others, especially members of the opposite sex (with whom most of us spend most of our lives). At this point, I‟m usually seen as deranged. If I‟m lucky, one or two members of a group will understand the import of my question. What is essential for everyone? It comes down to very few things: a rather low degree of literacy; third- or fourth-grade math, mostly counting; and a bit of the history of our society, all taught at a level where most people function. I advise those who are still with me to observe the majority of people in their everyday lives: those who sell newspapers, those who wait on tables, truck drivers, postal workers, construction workers, their Aunt Mary, or their hair stylist. Ask those people about their use of algebra or, for that matter, of Victorian poetry. Of course, I try to head off the usual first response by pointing out that no subject “trains the mind,” that faculty psychology and the notion of mental discipline were discredited about a century ago. That cruelly wipes out all the math and foreign language cultists. Unfortunately, the discussion that ensues is devastating, for eventually it becomes clear that our formal education system uses a “just-in- case” curriculum: learn this subject today, just in case you might need it in the future. Among teachers of English, I am most unwelcome. When they go on about the joys of keeping a journal or writing essays, I point out that I am the only person I know who writes essays and that I don‟t know anyone – except their students – who keeps a journal. No one that I know outside the university writes real letters or indeed writes must of anything. Even in my university word factory, we‟re using a sort of modern hieroglyphic communication made popular by the Internet. People do encounter more fiction that ever before (almost all of it carried by electronic th media) – with just about the same range of quality as that found in the 15 -century medium with which most teachers of English spend most of their lives. When I get absolutely carried away and note that in electronic form all the materials in our library would fit into a single filing cabinet in my office, where they would never deteriorate and save acres of trees, I am ostracized. Evidently, a book in the hand is worth two trees in the forest. At our endless meetings concerned with improving teacher education, I am as welcome as all Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding in at once. When faculty members go on about adding more courses on inclusion; multiculturalism; the teaching of fractions; reading across, over, under, and around the curriculum; assertive discipline; and the like, I feel compelled to ask, “What exactly is a course? How do we know when it is finished? When have students had enough? What evidence do we have that these „courses,‟ no matter how many and varied, produce more effective teachers? And is this string of courses a true program or simply something to impress ourselves and our accrediting agencies?” When they go on about producing better teachers by requiring more “course-work in the content areas” – perhaps even requiring a student to have a bachelor‟s degree before beginning teacher education –- I ask what I think is the obvious question, “If a liberal arts education produces better teachers, then college professors would be the very best teachers, no?” The answer is then an extended and morose silence, as the assembled "reformers” recall many of their own professors and look around the room at their colleagues. About then, a cup of hemlock is set before me, and the meeting on the “raising of standards” continues. At yet another meeting of “reformers,” I find the problem under discussion is how much students forget over summer vacation. Someone suggests that less would be forgotten if school were year round. I point out that it‟s odd that people who are sometimes celibate, often for years at a time, never forget how to make love and that, even after decades without practice, people remember how to ride a bike. But I go along with the group and suggest that schooling should not only be required year round but should also be extended to age 65. Perhaps than people will finally learn algebra, read enough literature, and truly be able to speak Spanish. The strangest responses I have received to my questions-that-should-never-be-asked have come from students. For example, I ask student teachers, “Is this algebra or chemistry? I can‟t tell the difference.” Or “Give me five main ideas that everyone should know.” Or “What is calculus used for?” Nine out of 10 of these secondary math education majors cannot answer that last question, although they are absolutely certain that it is used for something. The American Federation of Teachers devoted an entire issue of American Educator to the noble task of demonstrating what truly “world class standards” are by comparing test questions used in several nations. The U.S. is always there, fiercely competing for last place. Two Presidents and all the state governors have decided that we must meet world-class standards by the year 2000 – a sort of Oz-like goal for all of us. The British achieve the highest standard in terms of time-on task (if the task is a test); British students spend more than nine hours on the advanced-level examinations. I am truly impressed. I never spend nine hours on any single task, even those I enjoy. The Socratic question here is, “Why does any test have a time limit? Aren‟t what you know and what you are able to do with what you know the only things that matter?” When I bring this up with the people in educational psychology, I am immediately treated as a preschooler – cute but naïve. “Have a cookie and some milk?” I point out that there can be only a couple of reasons for a time limit, neither having to do with measuring true education. Either the proctor gets tired after a certain time, or the limit is an arbitrary way of sorting and ranking. (There is a third possibility that I seldom share: that the anal retentive individuals at the Educational Testing Service and similar establishments would throw a fit at the messiness of true education, which reveals itself in bits and pieces over a lifetime and almost never in a blacked-in answer sheet.) Some other Socratic questions that I have asked over the years include: “What is a credit? What is a „terminal‟ degree? Is all learning subsequently terminated?” (For many people, I know that this has certainly been the case.) “Can a course be taught without a textbook? What is a „core‟ curriculum? Is being „certified‟ the same as being certifiable?” When I give “workshops” for teachers, I proclaim that I no longer know my multiplication tables beyond the fives and am glad that my mind is freed from the burden of storing such trivia by the electronic gadget in my pocket, which also frees me from remembering spellings and thumbing through dictionaries. (Now I no longer have to fudge words I can‟t spell or cover up my inadequacy with sloppy handwriting.) At this point, the teachers in the workshop are ready to certify that I am certifiable. When, having lost all sense of decency, I admit that I know practically every term and reference in the back of E.D. Hirsch‟s Cultural Literacy and that, like him and Allan Bloom, I am one of the last of the book people – people whose minds are stuffed with trivia and literary references – the hemlock is delivered by express courier. But the one question that is never to be asked is this: “What is the purpose of education?” We have an answer from John Dewey, who considered this and related questions at the beginning of this century. For Dewey, the goal of education was more education. When I announce this, the only true answer I can supply, my students become catatonic at the thought of endless courses, tests, grades, a lifetime grade-point average, and hundred-dollar textbooks, filling their homes. For college administrators, my answer is the answer to their prayers; tuition forever. And for professors, it is a dream realized; to lecture into eternity. When I explain seriously to my students the idea of education as a lifetime of seamless experience, connecting individual episodes into an ever-expanding web of meaning, insight, and understanding, I note the fog that beclouds their eyes and enwraps their minds. (It‟s the same fog that I remember from my college calculus class.) When I tell them that I could never tolerate trading places with them and being “instructed.” When I tell them that, since being awarded my “terminal” degree, I have instructed myself in everything I consider to be significant; when I tell them that the process of self-instruction has been enjoyable, though it has consumed more time and energy than any graduate school could – only then, after this much-too-personal confession, do they begin to understand what true education is. Only then do they understand that a teacher can start an individual on the path toward education and can guide and support that person in a personal quest for education, but the quest is never finished. No subject is ever “taken.” No degree, however “terminal,” makes an education complete. All societies prepare their young to become participating adults. Some societies mark the passage to adulthood with rites and signs: circumcision, scarring, the endurance of pain. Our society seems to abuse its young with equally curious practices, involving the ritualized use of the academic curriculum of a bygone era. There probably is no single answer to my original question about what everybody needs to know. Certainly, any answer must be provisional because the world keeps changing so rapidly. But it seems to me that what everybody needs to know probably no longer needs to be taught in schools. There are certainly many things that small groups of people will need to know, specialists who focus on one area of knowledge or experience or who have a particular talent or ability. They may need special instruction and experiences. But the general culture of our society is now available both through electronic media and at the shopping mall. Building a bridge, playing the violin, creating special effects for movies, or repairing a car – these things require some instruction. But they don‟t require traditional classroom instruction. Such things can be better taught by other means and often in non-school educational settings (such as EPCOT Center, zoos, and aquariums) or through apprenticeships or by means of cable television. One day it may come to pass that we no longer need institutions devoted to teaching lessons and computing grade-point averages. Every June I will miss dressing up in my medieval costume, for I do love a parade. But I suspect that no one will miss me – or my questions. The questions usually asked in schools and colleges have already found a new home; they will continue to live on in the noble tradition of television game shows. There, all the trivia of schooling is made significant, and the rewards are more substantial; cars, vacations, and motorboats. These are much more motivating than grades, smiling faces, and terminal degrees.