I’m currently reading Plato’s Republic, and have been amazed at the richness of the source material on offer. The dialogues featured in Republic have the potential to inspire many a blog post on Barefoot Philosophy. However, for now, I will stick to one aspect that struck me while reading Book VII. This concerns Plato’s approach to education and learning.
To provide some context, we’ve currently reached the point where the character ‘Socrates’ has described the guardians of his ideal society. In particular, Socrates has provided further details on how the guardians must be educated in order to fit into their roles as philosopher kings (and presumably philosopher queens, since Plato was open to the idea of women sharing the duties of leadership).
Socrates, via the famous allegory of the ‘Cave’, has just explained the difference between commonplace knowledge and refined knowledge. Plato calls these two fields of knowledge the ‘visible realm’ (that which is obvious to everyday view) and the ‘intelligible realm’ (that which exists beyond the visible realm and lies closer to the truth).
The ‘masses’ pass their entire lives in the visible realm, happy to survive in a world of belief and half-truths. In this realm, superficiality is key. People look at things as they appear and possess no desire to inquire into the true state of the world. In other words, these are the long suffering cave dwellers staring at the shadow images and fooling themselves into believing they are seeing everything there is to know about the world.
However, to ascend to a higher level of truth and understanding – to step out of the Cave and appreciate the world as it really exists – one needs to receive rigorous training in the art of philosophical thinking. You cannot just walk off the street and think you’re ready to step into the role. You must prepare your mind to properly study and analyse anything it might encounter in the ‘real’ outside world. This requires a significant amount of training.
Indeed, at this point in Republic, Socrates is about to launch into a full description of an ideal curriculum for the trainee philosophers. Before he does so, he provides his interlocutor (Glaucon) with a preliminary note on what is needed to ‘sharpen the senses’:
Some things don’t encourage the intellect to explore further, because the situation can be adequately assessed by the relevant sense, while other things can’t help provoking an enquiring attitude, because sense-perception fails to produce a sound result.
As is often the case in Republic, Glaucon does not completely understand what Socrates is getting at, so the master duly provides some clarification. And here we reach the specific ‘tip’ that struck me as highly relevant for current day scholars.
The key to getting the intellect fired up is to provide it with sensory information that works contrary to what the mind is expecting. In other words, you need to discover a paradox.
If you reach out to touch an object, your mind has already made some form of assessment of the object and is therefore expecting to receive sensation X. if sensation X is indeed received, then the mind is satisfied and gives no further thought to the object.
However, if the received sensation is completely unexpected – it goes against the normal course of events – the intellect is suddenly jolted into action. Now it wants to discover the cause of the baffling occurrence. More importantly, this is the crucial moment when true learning occurs, when the mind is receptive and open to experience.
Moving forward to the modern day – and the modern classroom – Plato’s observations might help to explain why learning can be dry and difficult, especially if the emphasis is on rote learning. Since there is no surprise in the material, the mind plods along, not expecting to be energised any time soon. However, if you can somehow stimulate your mind to react at the right moments, you can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the learning process.
So I think Plato has a very practical message here. If you’re ever struggling to learn, find a way to surprise the mind. You’ll suddenly be open to new levels of perception and knowledge. I’m certainly going to give this a go next time I’m struggling with my day job.