Our confidence in our ever-increasing scientific knowledge may lead some to believe that the history of ideas is like a museum and that the desire to return to those ideas is as backward as someone preferring carrier pigeons to phones—crazy, perhaps even antisocial.
But the history of ideas is where history really does repeat itself, never in exactly the same way, but often in very similar ways.
I’ve heard some leaders in K–12 education say that everyone agrees that virtue education is important, but no one agrees on the definition of virtue or on whether or how it can be taught, and thus the best policy is to leave it alone. And, again, I’ve heard other leaders in K–12 education say that they know both what virtue is and how best it can be taught.
We find a similar debate at the opening of Plato’s Meno, which highlights the potential pitfalls in both positions.
Seeking to advance true standards of excellence that transcend us, the defender of virtue education risks making that education élitist. Seeking to avoid heavy-handed authority and to advance freedom, the circumspect critic of virtue education risks reducing virtue to nothing more than an irresolvable plurality of conflicting opinions.
In response, Socrates demonstrates how he can—by asking, not telling—guide one of Meno’s attendants through some advanced geometrical proofs. If anyone, however humble their starting-point in life, has such knowledge in them, could virtue be similar?
But this is where many might object: Virtue is not like geometry. Geometry describes the world of objective facts, virtue the world of subjective values.
Socrates’s response is that he has benefitted the attendant in three ways: First, he has shown the attendant that his views on geometry, of which he was so certain, were in fact false. Second, he stirred in him a longing to learn the truth. And, third, he showed him that he could attain some degree of that truth.
Socrates was teaching the courage to challenge one’s own prejudices and the love of learning necessary to pursue the truth assiduously. By the end, he suggests to the winsome, but domineering, Meno that he has witnessed a way to encourage people to become gentler and more cooperative.
Perhaps we were wrong to distinguish geometry and virtue as we did. Perhaps teaching virtue lies not only in what we teach but also in how we teach.
Virtue education is not one kind of education among many—rather it is the method of education itself. We can teach anything and everything in a way that solicits courage in humility and discipline in pursuit of the truth.
By the end of the work, Socrates remains skeptical of virtue education, but he indicates a road we might take toward it.
The greatest obstacle on that road may confront both the critic and the defender of virtue education: True virtue is the fruit neither of untethered freedom nor of detached truth, but of the free pursuit of the truth in community, which is open to all of us.
The tradition teaches us not only that we are by nature rational and free, but that we are political. Division is endemic to all societies at all times. If we find some degree of truth, we may find principles worthy of our allegiance beyond the subjective standpoints that so often divide us.
But, more than that, no one finds the truth entirely on their own. The pursuit of truth calls on us to trust and to seek to benefit one another, for it is only together that we will ever hope to attain it.
Dr. Matthew Post, serves as the associate dean and assistant professor of humanities within the Braniff Graduate School of Liberal Arts at the University of Dallas ( Irving, TX). His research interests include ancient political philosophy and classical education. He has published several articles, including the forthcoming, “Socrates’s ‘Art of Turning’ as an Education in Prudential Thinking,” in Liberal Arts and Sciences and Core Texts in a European Context.