Socrates and the pursuit of living an examined life

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

The unexamined life is not worth living.

-Socrates

Despite the incredible impact Socrates has had on society and education for thousands of years, he left behind few writings of his own. Instead, he lived his work; engaging in conversations with students, academics, politicians and citizens on a relentless search for the ultimate ‘truth’. His teachings are now known as the Socratic method; engaging in constant question-asking in every conversation until a contradiction is revealed, or the question cannot be answered.

Fascinatingly, humans seem to have a natural predisposition towards this type of learning. As early as children can speak, they start asking why. That “Why” stage that every toddler goes through as they seek to understand their environment is basically a simple version of Socrates’ method of learning. They look for the “why”…and the “why” behind that why…and the “why” behind that why…until the person they are questioning can no longer answer them.

An interesting study was done to understand children’s’ knowledge-gathering process and understand exactly why kids ask “Why?” so often:

To figure out kids’ responses to different questions, Frazier and her colleagues examined transcripts from everyday conversations of six kids, ages 2 to 4, who were speaking with parents, siblings and visitors at home. With just six kids, the researchers analyzed the transcripts, more than 580 of them, as their unit of analysis. Overall, there were more than 3,100 causal how and why questions such as, “Why my tummy so big, mom?” “Why not keep a light on?” and “How can snakes hear if they don’t have ears?”

Results showed kids were more than twice as likely to re-ask their question after a non-explanation compared with a real answer. And when they did get an explanation, which was about 37 percent of the time, they were more than four times as likely to reply with a follow-up inquiry as if they had received a non-explanatory response. 

Via LiveScience

So, at what point in our development do we stop asking questions so rapidly? When do we start accepting “non-answers”?

…And why? 

At Packback, we’re asking ourselves this question everyday…and we just don’t have the answer yet.

Socrates sharply questioned the youth of Athens for what he believed was blind faith in the “common knowledge” of the day. He felt that they placed too much confidence in the so-called wisdom of others, rather than continuing to ask their own questions. They placed faith in the authorities of the day, and trusted the wise men. We still place incredible faith in experts today, accepting theory as fact, without continuing to question. The challenges that Socrates saw in students desire to find the “root question” in ancient Athenian society are still present today.

I know I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing.

-Socrates

As Packback works to bring the Socratic Method into a digital setting in support of the modern classroom, it is a very exciting feeling to know that what we are working on is not new. We are building on and honoring the 2,500 year old legacy of the great thinkers of the past, and we are proud of that heritage.

In the words of Sir Issac Newton,

If I have seen further, it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants.

There is no shortcut to wisdom and lifelong learning. Digital tools can help guide the way, but learning will always take place in the mind of the student. To learn is to be human. It is a human process…and it requires human effort.

Packback is not a “solution” to education; we are simply a steward of curiosity.

Education is not something to be “cured”. It is something to be cultivated.

And it all starts with asking questions.


On Socrates: http://www.law.uchicago.edu/prospectives/lifeofthemind/socraticmethod

On the psychology of children asking “Why”: http://www.livescience.com/5892-kids.html