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Friday, March 15, 2013

Virtue is Knowledge: A Contemporary View of Plato's Dialogue "Meno" and Its Application to Modern Times

Are we still asking ourselves the "big" questions? Have we lost our moral compass? These questions are as common today as they were 2,000 years ago--although I suspect the answers are harder to come by today. The "Meno" dialogue is a deeply personal example for me; I try teaching it every semester as a starter for broad class discussions that, hopefully, spark a light in students' hearts and their views of their own philosophy. Anthony Kronman's book "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life," is a prime example of this premise. The question as to whether or not these are questions or lessons to be learned in the classroom is as old as time itself. The difference with today's social condition, as opposed, say, 100 years ago, is that these lessons are not (for the most part) not being taught at home. That is not to say that parents are not disciplining their children; on the contrary, I think parent involvement today has reached epic proportions. But again, what are the lessons being taught? How are following generations to understand the important from the mundane? With the increase of information availability, these question crescendo into a high pitch only dogs seem to hear. Politicians might fall back on the occasional cliche (we are at the crossroads) to avoid answering concretely, but we don't have that luxury. It is everyone's job, but if parents do not do the job at home, then teachers/professors must do it in the classroom/lecture hall.

Relativism no doubt will rear its "ugly" head and argue that most perennial of questions: "Who's to say what we should teach to arrive at those moral lessons?" While this is a valid question, the premise of the idea is simply false. Reading the Classics (a task now declared useless and defunct by the global economics-techophiles obsessed with 'competing' with China) has been the moral path to follow for centuries, if not millennia, but depending on a moral GPS is a recent development. With the increase of information available the only thing the online commune has to do is declare the information "solid" for it to jell into cemented ideas. I know I will sound like a grandpa saying that "back in the day" ideas took centuries to jell into cemented ideas, but that simply the truth. People like Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Sartre struggled with their ideas and thoughts, absorbing criticism, the scrutiny of their peers, etc. Today, we simply accept, and the collective triumphs. Please read DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism
by Jaron Lanier to see what I mean.

I know I cannot continue to post arguments like these without proposing a solution. Right now, I am teaching where I think I am needed the most. That's where I am starting. There are many different types of enlightenments, but the one that prompts a student to become a critical thinking, long-life learner might just be the best thing ever to happen to society since the invention of the wheel. If the proponents of the idea that the classroom is not a place to run around debating moral philosophies, then I beg them to share with me their alternative. Until then, the core of academia should be founded on the examination of the ethics missing from practically all current platforms.

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