Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The examined life is worth living

Published early December 2009

Each Monday evening at Las Positas College, about 20 students file into their usual seats in my classroom. Their faces are diverse, but their love of learning is singular.

This semester we’ve read Hemingway, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, and other well-known authors. A few weeks ago we finished up Hamlet, reading together and aloud key scenes from the play.

In addition to these great authors, I recently introduced my class to Socrates, the Greek philosopher famous for saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

We learned that Socrates was reportedly ugly, that his parents were not rich, and that he fought in the Peloponnesian War and saved the life of a fellow solider. We also learned that he never wrote down a single sentence describing his philosophy because his principles precluded him from expressing any one set of views.

In fact, if it weren’t for an ambitious student of Socrates named Plato, we’d likely have no record of Socrates’ perspectives, which included taking nothing for granted about life and using inductive reasoning to get to the heart of life’s greatest questions.

This form of reasoning dovetails with a technique known in academic circles as the Socratic method of inquiry in which we ask question after question to dig beneath our assumptions and attempt to arrive at answers about life.

After my short lecture in class about Socrates, I asked students to pull their desks into a circle to participate in a Socratic inquiry. Then I asked someone to volunteer a question worth exploring.
“How about what is virtue?” asked Crystal, who plays for the college basketball team.
“That’s a great question,” I said, asking her, “What do you think virtue is?”
Crystal and other students offered synonyms such as honesty and always being truthful, and from there we debated whether human nature is inherently good or if we have to be taught such values.

And if we’re inherently good, one student asked, why do people say that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”? And is that statement always true?

Soon we were inquiring and offering ideas about why some members of otherwise successful families turn out to be black sheep—a term we had to define for one student whose first language is Korean.

“I thought sheep were sort of yellow,” he said to our amusement.

As I drove home after class, I was excited that more than 2,400 years after Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens for encouraging youth to question authority, we sat in a circle and pondered the same questions that he and his students wondered about centuries ago.

Class that evening was a reminder that we often take for granted our freedom to speak and think openly about any subject in this country. In Germany in the 1940s, even questioning Hitler’s leadership to a neighbor could be disastrous. In Iran in the 1970s, suggesting that the government was oppressive might result in arrest by the secret police force. And of course today in many countries free speech is restricted.

As I always share with my students, what makes the United States free and keeps us free is recognizing the responsibility we have as citizens to participate in the democratic process. And this means thinking objectively, staying informed about issues from a wide range of sources, and—like Socrates—asking questions and setting priorities about what matters in life.

1 comment:

Green Gal said...

I think every English class should get a chance to have a Socratic discussion. We used to have them in my sophomore and junior English classes, often talking about a specific work of literature and posing questions about the characters, the author's purpose, etc. in order to develop a better understanding of the text.

It's great that you got a chance to have a discussion with your class, and I'm sure they enjoyed the chance to think and express their opinions in a less-stressful way than writing on their own, with just their thoughts. Sometimes we need to discuss things with other people before we can write in order to get our thoughts in order and confirm that what we interpreted or understand was interpreted by others, as well.