The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 11

Toward a Socratic Persistence of Vision

There is a very important bit of performance psychology here. I have long been in the habit of comparing myself to the best. When I think about physics I compare the quality of my thought to Einstein. When I compose music for string quartet, I compare myself to Mozart or Haydn. When I play chess, I compare myself to grandmasters. When I create 3D animations, I compare myself to Pixar. When I write program code, I compare my applications to the best software out there. If I make comparisons at all, I always prefer to look up to the best I can find for my comparisons. It is important for you to understand that I regularly come out looking terrible in these comparisons.

The important bit of performance psychology to think about is that a surprising number of people, who realize that I indulge this habit, have negative reactions. I have been told by some that this is unhealthy and asked why anyone would want to regularly do this to themselves. I have seen people actually physically wince at the realization that I always compare myself to the best in spite of looking bad in comparison. It is as if many people experience anything from mild psychological discomfort to physical nausea at the very thought of always being compared to the best, especially if they know ahead of time that they will come out looking bad. I have found that, with regard to actually living an examined life, looking bad while looking up is vastly superior to looking good while looking down.

My Rachmaninoff experience provides a useful illustration. I began this experience looking up to Valentina Lisitsa as a useful high standard of artistic performance, and wanting to play Rachmaninoff as well as she did. It turned out that I did not have the years of "piano monster"[11] discipline to pull that one off. My choice of Eichhorn for the solo piano adaptation in itself was an exercise in being realistic and a recognition that I probably was incapable of meeting my goal. By the standards of wanting to play Rachmaninoff as beautifully as Lisitsa I failed dramatically. This did not stop me from comparing my performance to hers, nor did I refrain from aspiring to such excellence at the keyboard. That there are people in the world who are gloriously superior to me in all kinds of ways never makes me feel bad. It is inspiring. When you are looking up, there is no such thing as failure.

In this case, I was able to create a useful reading of Real Presences based on the Rachmaninoff experience BECAUSE I was unable to meet my high standards at playing the piano. My own limitations as an artist joined with my persistence in looking up to share a common space that germinated within me useful insights about my artistic cheap talk. The truth of creating common ground and sharing a common space is not just a reality that exists between different persons, but is also important for the interiority of our own amazingly diverse minds. Looking down and refraining from touching upon the highest standards because we think we are unable, or are afraid to look bad for trying, forces us to live in the less fertile separated spaces within our own minds. Learning to be comfortable with our limitations without having to lower our sights in order to be comfortable leads us to primary experiences of touching the common grounds of human excellence. This fearless tact for recognizing and facing the common grounds of human excellence is a healthy posture in living the examined life, and gives us the ability to share a common space with the best that we may become.

The point of performance psychology discussed here is that we must be unafraid to risk trying to be our best. We must be comfortable giving our energies to our doing and our being in the full face of the highest standards without worrying about how we look to other people or to the critic in our own mind. Continuing to look up even when we cannot reach the highest is an important quality of character that is useful, especially when we fall short of the best standards. This comes into its full relevance when we are visited by the presence of the other. A real presence is a demanding presence. I had an interesting awakening during the writing of this essay regarding the reality of artistic performance, which involved performing the adagio cantabile so it may become a real presence to others. One day, I decided to refocus my practice in order to actually record it and link to my performance from this essay. The instant I first played Beethoven's adagio cantabile with a view to having people hear it, I was amazed by the revelation of how lackadaisical I had been in my monitoring of the quality of my performance. The totality of performance perfection stared down at me and my dalliance with the adagio cantabile and asked, "Really?".

Prior to that moment, playing the adagio cantabile had always been an experiment, a test of theory. As a manifestation of the theoretical, my performance lacked a certain vitality of truth that comes when performance actually exists as art in the real presence of the other. I found out that opening ourselves up to the real presence of the other is not only a necessary truth for the receiver of art or the academic interpreter. I learned that I, as an artist, had a debt of hospitality to the real presence of the others, who would receive my artistic performance. The potential for the negative effects of too much of the theoretical and too little real presence in art is not restricted to the domain of academic writing. Even a primary artistic performance may suffer in quality when it is only expressed in our private spaces. When there is no demand by the real presences of others to join with them in a shared space of experience, the vitality of art often suffers. The same is true of the vitality of all human living. The art of living demands the demanding real presence of the other in order to be at its best.

Here is a recording of my playing the Adagio Cantabile two weeks after I started practicing with a view to it being heard. (Adagio Cantabile Recording)

My fearlessness for indulging my love of high standards in regard to playing the adagio cantabile was partly propped up by its languishing in the domain of the theoretical. Bringing my theory to the domain of actual performance put things into better perspective. Spending so much time attending to the learning and performance of one piece (one third of one piece), then potentially playing it poorly for others would seem like something to avoid. However, if that is my best, then I have a greater debt of hospitality to the wellbeing of my own thriving to give my energies to trying to do my best without regard to the opinions of others.

Melete always emphasizes that comparing ourselves to the best is not a comparison of self, it is a comparison of our doing. "I" am not comparable to anyone else. I am too unique, too complex. However, my piano playing and my other doings are comparable. This eliminates the personal element of competition, and takes ego out of the mix. Melete says that we are never against the other. This is true even for the others within us. She said, "I never even complete against my best. I am always for increasing my best, but competition is meaningless. I am never against, I am always for." Embracing this philosophy allows me to continually compare my efforts to the highest standard of creating the finest performance ever played without getting worried about how unlikely such an achievement may be, or how impossible it may be to construct a standard of measure to evaluate myself. As long as I have room to look up beyond my current abilities, it is a blessing to my creative experiences.

Yet, it is true there are real reasons that failing to meet external standards and comparisons should cause us concern. If we fail to meet the standards of any particular setting or task, we can experience a wide range of negative feedback such as failing to graduate, losing a job, failing a relationship, or even being unable to physically survive. Again, we must be realistic. Knowing our limits is important. The problem is that there are many more people who are good at consistently underestimating themselves than there are those who cannot learn their limits. It is far more common for people to not know their full potential than it is for a person to have continuous problems exceeding their limits. With few exceptions, life shoots us down fairly quick and hard if we brazenly exceed the limit of our ability. But life may never bother to slap you hard in the face with the realization that you are amazingly more capable than you have dared to dream. If such a slap happens at all, it usually happens too late to take full advantage of the insight.

Therefore, we must willfully make up the difference.

Socrates lived a lifetime of looking up, and he was not intimidated from trying to do well because he might be found wanting. He did not worry about his social status if people discovered that he was ignorant. After decades of seeking the knowledge of justice and virtue, yet finding none, Socrates was not embarrassed to continue to inquire about what it meant to be a just and virtuous human being. He always aspired to become just and virtuous no matter how poorly his ignorance reflected on the hope for positive results. It was always much more important to Socrates to give his attention each day to the task of doing his best to improve himself than to worry about the implications of coming out bad in a comparison. In the U.S., academia's tenacious clinging to modes of performance measurement that have so clearly intimidated and damaged the thriving character of so many students may not be the best stance for education systems.

This is not to say that education should not have structure and methods of measuring results. It is to say that the most fundamental goal of all education is the development of human character. It is more important to cultivate human beings who are not afraid to look up for the rest of their lives than to confront them with every measured evaluation as if the totality of their being could be fit into a number. The principle is simple. Enthusiastic, motivated and attentive students will always do better than despairing, unmotivated and inattentive students who wince at the thought of each new comparison of their performance to an external standard.


[11] In one of Lisitsa's videos, which I cannot find anymore, she talked about her years of practice when her family had to build a sound proof room just to help them live with her. She referred to herself as becoming a piano monster.