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Volume 1, Number 3
May 2001

Socrates on Technology
by Jo Ellen Parker
President
Great Lakes Colleges Association

Those who believe that technology will cause sweeping transformations in higher education are probably right. Technology tends to do that. The technology of writing and the book, for example, created the modern university. Higher education existed long before universities. People gathered around teachers, who were free to roam about the countryside collecting learners as they went. Once there were books too heavy to cart around, there came to be libraries. Once there were libraries, scholars went to them and settled down so as to be near the texts, and the idea of a campus was born. We sometimes forget that the system we now take for granted was itself the result of technological innovations like the development of the book: innovations that were controversial in their own times.

In fact, Plato had a number of worries about what would happen when written texts began to dominate Greek education. In the Phaedrus, Plato quotes Socrates as follows: "If men learn this [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks." Books, "by telling them of many things without teaching them" will make students "seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.  Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will provide something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple-minded."

Socrates' concern is that books allow teachers to communicate with students without being personally present. Because a book says the same thing over and over to all readers, Socrates believes, it teaches no one -- it cannot engage each reader or learner as an individual. The book was therefore devastating to Socratic education.

Actually, Socrates sounds a lot like those who are concerned about technology and education today. Socrates worried about the results of books allowing people to learn from teachers they never met -- which is just what some say about distance learning. We wonder about what it will mean for education when students are able to participate in class discussions from half a hemisphere away, never sitting in the same room with a professor, or when they are able to go through whole courses online, without references to books. (You see, we've now gotten over the Greek suspicion of books so completely that we can no longer imagine a respectable education without them.)

But of course, I only know about Socrates' opposition to books because Plato wrote it down in a book. And further, can quote Socrates this morning -- from my desk, without a trip to the library -- because I can access an indexed edition of Plato online. So maybe it's true, as a long line of philosophers from Socrates to Marshall McLuhan have told us, that technology inevitably changes consciousness, and that such changes always entail loss. But they always entail gains as well. The really useful discussions are about how we will adapt, not whether we should.

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LiberalArtsOnline is an occasional email essay on the liberal arts, provided as a public service of the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts.

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The comments published in LiberalArtsOnline reflect the opinions of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Center of Inquiry or Wabash College. Comments may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author, LiberalArtsOnline, and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts.