The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 2

PART I: The Art of Living:
Hospitality to the Stranger Within

"The role of art is to make a world which can be inhabited."
- William Saroyan

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What is Fundamental to Education?
What is fundamental to education? Consider the following thought experiment. Take a group of people, who hold PhDs in literature and mathematics, and drop them off into the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Put our intrepid PhDs there in the condition of being naked and without provisions. The virtually certain result is that they would die. I can easily imagine those highly educated PhDs desperately roaming about the rainforest like undeveloped and uneducated babies stumbling to their deaths. Compare our group of PhDs to the Pirahã tribe, who live on the banks of a river in the Amazon rain forest. Except for the simplest distinctions, the Pirahã have no words for or concept of numbers. They have no words for specific colors. Their language, which can also be whistled or hummed, is a phonologically very simple language. The Pirahã cannot regale us with their knowledge of science or the history of art. They cannot read. By the standards of developed nations, the Pirahã are illiterate and mathematically disabled. Yet, any fully functioning member of the Pirahã tribe “can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game.”[2] In the Amazon, compared to our rainforest dwelling PhDs, the Pirahã are highly educated people in all of the ways that count.

If asked "What is fundamental to education?", many people would naturally be inclined to talk about reading, writing, and arithmetic. As intuitively sensible as it may be to suggest these much needed basic skills are a potential answer to this question, it would be incorrect. The "three R’s” are merely culture specific tools. As useful as these tools are, they have nothing to do with the fundamentals of education. By definition, what is fundamental to education must be so for all education. Furthermore, because education is fundamental to a life well lived, what is fundamental to all education must also be fundamental to all willful living. There is a widespread preoccupation with the value of the written word and mathematics for education. However, much of the learning a properly developed human being should experience in the course of a life well lived is experienced without any reading, writing, or mathematics.

Regarding the fundamentals of education, what do our group of PhDs and the Pirahã have in common? The key to assessing this question is in considering a basic truth about what it means to be conscious. At the most basic level, a conscious being is a being that pays attention. Attentiveness is fundamental to willful living. There is no example of a willful act that does not require the actor to pay attention. Even mastered skills that can be performed on automatic pilot are possible due to a prior history of attentiveness. The commonality with regard to the fundamentals of education is that it requires a high quality and persistence of attentiveness both to earn a PhD and to survive in the rainforest. The quality and persistence of human attentiveness is the most important educational foundation for every student in every culture and time. The quality of attentiveness is the difference between a sapient being, who is capable of rising above her own dreams, and merely being an biological machine that is just going through the motions. The absence of human attentiveness is the absence of human living. The persistence of a high quality of attentiveness through fair weather and foul is the road we must travel to lead an examined life worth living.

Attentiveness alone is not enough. No matter how great the quality of attentiveness, it MUST be combined with the persistent will to benefit and improve oneself. Anyone can destroy themselves in highly attentive ways. Socrates’ goal in using his “method” was not to teach specific facts. Socrates sought to inspire people to give the fullness of their attentiveness to living an examined life. The persistence of our enthusiasm to examine our ideas, beliefs, character and living is absolutely fundamental to Socrates' vision of what it means to be educated. The goal Socrates sought to achieve through a lifetime of attentive examination of life and self was to build better character through the subordination of the will to knowledge. Seeking good living through good character was Socrates’ vision of a life well lived. It is the function of education to facilitate the development of human character. This development leads people to the enthusiasm of heart, the quality of mind, and the virtue of character to persist in a never ending quest to establish their willful living with knowledge and understanding. In this Socratic perspective, attentiveness and willfulness powered by the desire to better oneself are fundamental to the process of education and a life well lived. They are more fundamental than the incidental collection of learning and living tools that any particular culture offers to its students.

Walking the road of self-discovery in our journey to live well requires that we make ourselves able to be highly attentive to other people and ideas in productive ways. This is most important when these others embody differences that challenge our currently accepted understanding. Although being engagingly attentive to others when they challenge our understanding is a necessary strength that every developed human being must possess, there is an even more fundamental principle here. Being willing to positively engage other people and ideas, especially when there are differences, is necessary because understanding and meaning itself exist in the context of differences. If all things are the same thing, then that is the same thing as nothing. Differences are the wellspring of human cognitive life. What do biologists call a pond with only one life form? The answer to that question is: Dead. A mind with just one idea, one way of seeing, one way of being is just as dead.

What is the meaning of life?: A Socratic Approach
What is the meaning of life? What is the point of it all? The meaning of life, and the question of meaningfulness generally, is one of the most driving issues in human history. We all have an inborn instinct to thirst greatly for the experience of meaning. The absence of the human experience of meaning is a disturbing and often destructive reality. The absence of meaning in our living is correlated with loss of productive focus and performance breakdown, substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, hopelessness and psychological problems ranging from depression to suicide. Human beings desperately desire the experience of meaningfulness. Our instinct to experience meaningfulness is often translated into the question about the meaning of life. We ask about the point of it all as if the answer to this question would satisfy our deep and unrelenting need to experience meaningfulness.

Even if we had a definitive answer to the question of the meaning of life, we will still need much more than that answer in order to satisfy our unrelenting thirst for meaning. There is another method for approaching our quest for knowing meaning in life that is significantly more effective than merely asking "What is the meaning of life?". This approach is consistent with the Socratic philosophy of education that is articulated in this essay. The Socratic method (pun intended) of addressing the question of meaning gives us daily access to satisfying our needs to experience meaningfulness. This stands in contrast to having "The" correct answer to the meaning of life, which would just sit in our heads like a shallow pat answer in the absence of living an examined life.

The human experience of meaning, no matter if such experiences may or may not be logically validated as true or false, always requires a context of associations. Nothing means anything in and of itself. In pure isolation, any particular thing means nothing. The existence of meaning in the human mind always demands that different things be associated together in some way. Think of the meaning of a pen. The meaning of a pen is inconceivable without the contexts of association with other ideas such as writing, paper, communication, a knowledge of its construction, etc. There is not one human experience of meaning in the history of our species that did not involve some form of the association of different things. Without differences, meaning is impossible. We cannot answer the question of the meaning of life in the same way that we can answer a question about the meaning of an umbrella. This is true to the extent that any such answer requires a context of association. We are quite versed in the contexts of the use and functioning of an umbrella. However, the full context of life eludes us. Once we reach the limit of our ability to associate a knowledge of, or even apply our imagination to, what is in and beyond this universe, the question of the actual meaning of life becomes a useless focus.

Instead of asking the question, "What is the meaning of life?", this Socratic perspective leads us to ask, "Can I live meaningfully?". The shift from the first to second question is a shift from a focus on an abstract idea to the firsthand process of our own living. The first question, "What is the meaning of life?", demands a context of knowledge that is vastly beyond our scope and makes the question impossible to answer in an objective manner. However the second question, "Can I live meaningfully?", is more effective at satisfying our continuous, relentless need for meaning as it addresses our daily process. The good news is that the second question only requires a basic knowledge of how our minds work in order to provide a useful answer. It is to the second question about our capacity to live life meaningfully that this Socratic philosophy of education offers a definitive yes.

This essay will articulate the foundations of a Socratic philosophy of education that stand at the very center of the human quest for meaning. For now, I will tie off our current discussion on meaning by relating one principle. It is true that all experiences of human meaning require that differences be associated. However, it is not just that we desire specific experiences of meaning that drives us. We desire more than any particular experience of meaning at any particular time. The human quest for meaning is organized around our deep and unending need to experience a stable continuity of meaningfulness throughout our lives. It is towards establishing a rich and stable continuity of meaning in our living that this Socratic philosophy of education addresses itself.

The main principle in regard to satisfying our need to experience continuity in the meaningfulness of our living has to do with the human cognitive capability to continually rethink and re-associate. Once we have made enough associations in our brains to form one experience of meaning, continuity demands that we have the ability to re-associate the data of our meanings as the circumstances of our thinking and living change. We are always having to rethink things. Discovering new understandings through new contexts of association is a developmental necessity of human life. The richness and continuity of our habits of examining life will correlate at a basic level with the richness and continuity of our experience of the meaningfulness of our living. Without paying high quality attention to the differences that life continually brings to our minds, we are lost to our ability to deepen our experiences of the meaning of life.

It is the world view that never changes, never adapts, never examines itself, which dooms the human spirit to the despair of meaninglessness when life's circumstances do not fit into the nutshells we have created for ourselves. It is the mind that never loves to tear apart its own ideas through self-examination that gets trapped in the meaninglessness of clinging to frozen and obsolete understandings. The structure of the principle of continuous re-association and its relationship to the continuity of meaning will be explored in detail in Part III of this essay through a study of the relationship between repetition, variation, complexity and meaning.

For now I observe that most people would say a meaningless life is not worth living. Plato had Socrates say the same thing with different words. Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." The continuity of our experience of meaning and the continuity of our habit of examining life are inseparable realities that walk together hand in hand to make a life worth living. These realities are inseparable because a lifelong habit of continuous examination makes us skillful at re-associating ideas and data. The one who lives an examined life is already prepared through vigorous habit to do the work needed regarding reestablishing meaning, when life itself destroys our beliefs, values, and world view. The continuity of our experience of meaningfulness is safeguarded by the continuity of the habit of leading an examined life. It is the one who lives an unexamined life who is unprepared to do the re-associating work needed to rebuild meaningfulness when life takes it away from us. The examined life, with its emphasis on the priority of doing our own original work to create our own understanding, is critically important to the human quest for meaning.

At this point, I must say that any philosophy of education that has any hope of being useful to elevating the human will to thrive must, at its core, seek to inspire people to lead an examined life. It is the persistence of enthusiastic, engaging and willful attentiveness that gives us our greatest capacity to grow and evolve. Without the differences that other people and ideas bring to us, there is nothing to attend to and the creation of knowledge, understanding, and the human experience of meaning is impossible. In the absence of our capacity to thoughtfully examine our ideas, beliefs, and living, human life becomes less human. The absence of high quality attentiveness to differences is the absence of conscious living. Collapsing into defensive posturing when differences challenge our understanding is a serious weakness that Socratic education seeks to eliminate. We cannot allow overt conflict or avoidance to be the preferred method students use to deal with other people and ideas when those others challenge their understanding. Being trapped in our own understandings because we are afraid to give our attentiveness to associating new ideas and information is the fast road to destroying our capacity for living meaningfully. This fundamentally life destroying weakness must be replaced with the ability to enthusiastically, willfully and persistently engage our full attention to differences and challenges as we productively thrive in the midst of extraordinary diversity.

Leading an examined life is the outcome that education must seek to establish in every student. The examined life is necessary for healthful thriving and for maintaining a significant quality and continuity of meaning in our living. This essay will unpack the underlying psychological principles, character traits, and habits of human relatedness that underlie all successful education and make the living of an examined life possible. I will demonstrate the centrality of the Socratic method and philosophy of education to the foundations of all human thriving in our quest for meaning.


[2] Colapinto, John. “Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?” New Yorker. 16 April 2007. Retrieved 22 November 2012.