The school religious education syllabus next year is going to include a unit on classical philosophy. It will be an interesting prospect, to ask questions rather than repeat propositions. It will strengthen the skills of oracy, argument and reason, it will allow students to learn in a way they might have done at our Somerset primary school in the 1960s.
Perhaps it was the economic stringencies of the times, but books did not seem to play a significant part of the learning process in those primary school days. There were the Word Perfect books for spelling and the books that formed the reading programme, but otherwise the teaching and learning seemed focused upon the words of the teacher and occasional use of the blackboard. Perhaps the intention was to educate us in how to learn for ourselves, perhaps Miss Rabbage, our teacher, a product of training in the 1930s, knew of no other way, or perhaps having grown up in times when the classics formed a major part of grammar school education, she knew of Socrates and his warnings about the danger of writing.
In a conversation about wisdom and writing, Socrates recalled an exchange between Theuth and Thamus from the legends of ancient Egypt:
But when they came to writing, Theuth said: “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.”
Thamus, however, replied, “O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”
Miss Rabbage might have concurred with Socrates opinion about having words without wisdom, she might have questioned the approach imposed upon her Twenty-First Century counterparts, who must have classrooms filled with students who can recall facts to answer examination questions in order to get grades.
Socrates would have thought this was an approach that created the appearance of people knowing much when they knew nothing; Miss Rabbage, on her feet most of the time, teaching, questioning, would have asked probing questions about why it was being done. Perhaps a little philosophy teaching will allow the acquisition of wisdom rather than the appearance of it.