Plato’s Meno and Unlocking Excellence

“What is more suited to conversation is not just to give the true answer, but also to do so in terms of what the questioner has in addition agreed he knows.”-Socrates (Meno p. 49)

“There is no truth. Everything is permitted.”-Hassan I Sabbah

Hey, it’s Raph here with a post on Plato’s Meno. I’ve talked with a few people in class about this text and mentioned it briefly as an example in my review of Critical Pedagogy by Joan Wink, but I really must stress its importance as it goes along with much of our course work.

Meno is one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues and it deals with the discussion between Socrates and the slave-owner, Meno, as to whether or not excellence can be taught. Meno poses the question and Socrates claims to have no knowledge as to the definition of excellence. He then asks Meno if he could explain excellence. As Meno struggles to explain the meaning of the word by citing many examples of what excellence could be, Socrates throws more questions at him and points out how these definitions could be problematic. He tells Meno to “stop making many things out of one” (p.53) and in the process works with Meno in un-learning what he thinks he knows of excellence.

Once they reach common ground, and Meno realizes that he no longer knows anything about excellence, Socrates addresses the question again. Socrates states, “…As far as excellence is concerned, I don’t know what it is; you perhaps knew before you came into contact with me, but now you are like someone who doesn’t know. All the same, I want to consider it with you and join with you in searching for whatever it is” (p. 63).

Eventually, Socrates asks one of Meno’s slaves to take part in answering some basic questions dealing with geometry. As you read, you notice that he is drawing the answers from the slave by asking the right questions. From here, Socrates concludes that knowledge and excellence is something within us all. Excellence cannot be taught. It is our own responsibility whether or not we choose to unlock it by asking the right questions of our teachers and of ourselves.

So, with the conclusions of Meno, we can see the importance of the question (ie. for our project, and bigger questions about life in general) and look at teaching under a whole new light. I’m really interested in seeing what you all think about this material. If anyone is interested in reading Meno, I highly recommend it. It’s a very quick read and clocks in at under 50 pages. I have a copy if anyone is interested in borrowing it.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Plato’s Meno and Unlocking Excellence

  1. sofiapenna

    Raph,

    I find your correlation of Meno to our teaching professions very creative and interesting. Since you’ve asked what we think, here is my opinion:
    I completely agree with you that the question is more important than the answer. It appears to me that the best teachers encourage students to work those questions, not the answers.

    I think of our class projects as a tool for empowering students by showing them that questions can be very open to personal interpretation. By posing a question like one of our fellow classmates has, “What makes news,” students can work through their own perceptions of news, as well as society’s many interpretations. Ultimately, a question like this one would show young adults that there are many answers, and it is up to the eye of the beholder to decide which one is correct. Since all different colors, shapes, and kinds of eyes see a question differently, students will learn that diversity makes for excellence in an answer.

    I think this is very different from what is traditionally taught in classrooms. For example, “These are the four symbols in this novel. This is the significance of the setting.” I think students are intimidated of working questions, because they feel their teachers are looking for one correct answer. Especially in literature, we know there is hardly ever one answer. So why teach like there is? We should free our students to be “excellent” at discovering different answers. Also, we should encourage that they change their minds about those answers as they see more, and to remember that question marks are not always symbols of incomplete business or confusion. Question marks can make powerful statements, too, just like periods can. -Sofia

  2. sunyprof

    Raph, yours is a highly interesting intertextual connection — b/w Plato and our unit plan project. Thank you for making it for us. I’m especially interested in being reminded of the essence of this dialogue and that is the notion of what is knowledge (i.e. truth) and what is excellence?

    Sofia makes a very good point when she calls into question our willingness to support inquiry-driving teaching/learning in contrast to the static delivery of information teaching which is the primary model for what it is we do in classrooms.

    Have you (or has anyone?) read Robt. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values?

    It’s a fascinating journey both literally and figuratively into the heart of a Zen philosophy. It sold wildly when it was published over 30 years ago now and still does–in 27 languages.

    Your post on “Meno” made me think about Pirsig again. KES

  3. traverse02

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has been recommended to me a few times, but, unfortunately I never read it. I know that it involves a son and father working together on the father’s motorcycle and it details the little/big things that they learn from each other as they go about their project. I’ll have to pick it up at some point and see what connections can be made. I’m sure there are many. Thanks for the recommendation.

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