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					                                 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
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.