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Learning & Teaching

This Philosophical Life

Chris Fotinopoulos on growing up to become a philosopher, on good and bad education and on Socratic dialogue in high schools.

Socrates’ gadfly stung me out of my adolescent apathy soon after I read his Apology in a collection of Plato’s dialogues called The Last Days of Socrates. This was my first philosophy book, given to me by my high school teacher about twenty years ago.

He was not my first philosophy teacher; my mother was. And although I didn’t know it at the time, her teachings were similar to those of Socrates which were, quite simply, directed to living the good life. The bigger question was: how?

I didn’t see my mother as my teacher, until an encyclopaedia salesman who was doing his usual rounds amid our migrant working class neighbourhood during the early 1970’s asked me if I could name my first teacher. And as I blurted out my primary school teacher’s name, he pointed to my smiling mum and said “No. There is your first teacher.” Given that she was the first person to engage me in conversation about anything that was on my mind, it made perfect sense.

He asked me what I wanted to do in life. To find out what lies behind darkness. Why I am me and not someone else. And how can I be certain of anything? He suggested I should study science, but it was – although I didn’t know it at the time – philosophy I had in mind. Even as a child I was suspicious of people guaranteeing definitive answers to life’s big questions for a certain financial outlay.

My first ‘official’ philosophy lesson came at a significant financial sacrifice for my parents in the form of an elite private school education in a middle class bay-side suburb of Melbourne. The school ethos seemed to be inspired by a nostalgic yearning for a time when intellectual snobbery, pompous ritual and bourgeois arrogance were the mark of a proper education.

Interestingly, independent schools began to use this as a sales pitch to working class migrants in an attempt to win their patronage in an increasingly competitive education market. After all, what would newly arrived and uneducated peasants like my parents and grandparents possibly know about a proper English education?

So it wasn’t too long before my parents enrolled me in a school that soon became the anvil upon which schoolmasters could forge this recalcitrant and culturally-blemished matter into some semblance of respectability. This was, after all, the agreement that my parents had entered into.

Luckily, my philosophy teacher happened to be a knock Anglican priest who was more concerned in using his trademark mongrel bark to sting wayward adolescent boys into thinking about life’s big questions than dwelling on social status, traditions and customs.

He gave us the precise questions to the end of year exam, suggesting that there was more to learning than simply slotting facts in the appropriate blank spaces. For him, real learning, as with life itself, required inspiration, imagination, creativity and the courage to think freely without fear of consequence.

Although he applied a fairly simplistic and rigid question-answers strategy (known as Platonic Dialogue), it none-the-less proved that philosophical inquiry was an effective way of challenging cold and rigid institutional practices.

Ironically, it was within this conservative school setting that I came to appreciate Socrates’ warning against slavish adherence to customs and traditions. His demonstration of philosophical inquiry gave me the confidence and courage to question, examine, re-evaluate, and abandon many of the archaic values and customs espoused in a school that was little more than a colonial throwback. Socrates’ commitment to challenging the arrogance of his home State provided me with the courage to pick at the threads of the elitist institution that my parents had banked on making me a good person.

Sadly, Socrates paid for this important lesson with his life, whereas I got off with nothing more than being labelled a rascal, and – much to the chagrin of staff traditionalists who wanted me out – an independent thinker.

My fascination for philosophy acquainted me with my mother’s world, transporting me to ancient Greece where I unearthed relics from a civilisation that lay beneath the very fields my mother had played on as a peasant child before leaving for a better life half way across the world in Australia.

As I tilled the rich and fertile soil of Greek antiquity for answers to the questions I had posed as a child, I came across a nugget of advice that changed my life forever. It was that man again, Socrates, warning me against the dangers of living an unexamined life.

By the time I attended university to study philosophy and literature, I had begun to appreciate through various philosophical works, as well as the writings of André Gide, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nikos Kazantzakis, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera that self-examination leaves you vulnerable to your insecurities, flaws, passions and fears – a lesson that set me on a rich and wondrous journey fraught with uncertainty and doubt. But rather than retreat, I was comforted by the thought of confronting, exploring and understanding life’s complexities and uncertainties through painstaking inquiry and dialogue.

My appetite for dialogue eventually took me to remote regions of the world, acquainting me with the rich and magical diversity that this world has to offer.

It wasn’t until I became a teacher myself that I came to realize that any social institution that seeks to snuff one’s hunger for dialogue and spiritual nourishment needs its philosophers and artists more than ever. Philosophical dialogue inspired by curiosity and love is, for me, the key to living the good life.

This is why I am encouraged by the application of Modern Socratic Dialogue in universities, as well as in the Australian secondary schools system. It is a powerful teaching method that emphasises the value of asking deep questions and discussing them openly, honestly, and with respect for rational thought. It is certainly something that I would have appreciated as student attending a school that had, despite the efforts of a couple of teachers, scant regard for philosophical inquiry and open dialogue. It certainly would have liberated me much sooner from the pricey educational straightjacket into which I was strapped so many years ago.

No doubt, The Last Days of Socrates inspired me as a teenager, but it wasn’t until I began to relate personal experiences in a community of ethical inquiry that it provided me with a deeper insight into the questions that I posed as small child.

By the time Socrates was executed he was old and still had no definitive answers to life’s big questions. He did however know that he was free to question, challenge, agitate and engage in dialogue with anyone who was serious about living the good life. This is indeed an admirable characteristic – particularly to many of today’s youth who have become tired with inward looking, self-opinionated, bungling do-gooders who are, as many of my private school teachers were, enslaved by custom and tradition.

The teacher’s job is not to inculcate the ‘right’ set of values in students. Their job is to provide students with the intellectual tools, confidence and courage to question and challenge that which parents, friends, media personalities, priests, politicians and indeed teachers insist on being right. This is how an education in values ought to be approached.

Clearly, the creative, curious and courageous will embrace Modern Socratic Dialogue in their quest for answers to life’s big questions. But it is those who lack the courage to examine, question and talk openly and rationally that need to be stung by Socrates’ gadfly into action – as I was so many years ago.

© Chris Fotinopoulos 2005

Chris Fotinopoulos teaches Media Studies and Philosophy at a secondary college. He also manages the clinical ethics course for advanced medical trainees at the Centre for the Study of Ethics in Medicine and Society at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. (fotinopoulos.chris.c@edumail.vic.gov.au)

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