Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Education: From Plato to MOOCs
With the internet, new education technologies are arriving at a quickening pace, such as the free online courses known as MOOCs (for massively open online courses). These have sparked intense debate about the role of the classroom and the long term fate of traditional learning institutions. Yet new technologies have long spurred such debate. With the advent of the printing press and textbooks in the late 1400s and 1500s, some predicted that classroom teaching would no longer be needed. In Plato's era (429-347 B.C.E.), writing had begun to spread beyond the elite scribes to a broader segment of the population after the introduction of a true alphabet by the Phoenicians to the Greeks. Famously, in his book Phaedrus, Plato decried that more widely spread use of writing as detrimental to the attainment of wisdom. In it, he used the character of Socrates to proclaim that writing "is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality." The passage from Phaedrus where this quote appears is shown below:
"SOCRATES: Enough appears to have been said by us of a true and false art of speaking.
SOCRATES: But there is something yet to be said of propriety and impropriety of writing.
PHAEDRUS: Yes. ...
SOCRATES: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them a censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, 'This,' said Theuth, 'will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.' Thamus replied: 'O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.' ...
PHAEDRUS: I acknowledge the justice of your rebuke; and I think that the Theban is right in his view about letters.
SOCRATES: He would be a very simple person, and quite a stranger to the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters?
PHAEDRUS: That is most true.
SOCRATES: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.
PHAEDRUS: That again is most true."
Author: Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett
Publisher: Actonian Press; 2.0.0 edition (January 19, 2010)
Phaedrus by Plato translated by Benjamin Jowett pub. by Actonian Press; 2.0.0 edition (January 19, 2010)
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