The Fundamentals of Education:
A Socratic Perspective on the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Part II: Page
Twenty-Twenty Four

Plato text used for all quotes:
Plato: Complete Works 

Socratic Studies and Philosophy:

Socratic Citizenship 

Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School 

Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher

Socratic Studies

Does Socrates Have a Method?: Rethinking the Elenchus in Plato's Dialogues and Beyond

Dialogue and Discovery. A Study in Socratic Method (SUNY Series in Philosophy)

Socratic Perplexity: And the Nature of Philosophy

Teachings of the Anti-Socratic

4.) Important topics can be justly handled
     in the time between commercial breaks.

The primary format for public conversations is in the U.S. is on video media. The time constraints on such conversations can be immensely restrictive. It does matter how complex the subject, it is always discussed in a mode that tries to reach some kind of resolution prior to the next commercial break. This means that not just any conversation can fit into the time frame of modern media. The level of concision needed to force a conversation to fit these time limits automatically excludes a depth of intelligence beyond that needed to give cursory descriptions of ideas. It makes impossible a breadth of diversity beyond the most commonly recognized and rehearsed forms, and excludes altogether the capacity to analyze principles and ideas to anywhere near the best of our ability. To meet the demands of modern media time limitations, rehearsed talking points are favored over the spontaneous expression of real and thoughtful perspectives. That which can be easily repeated and remembered has become more important than that which is true.

In contrast to the modern media, the dialogues represented in Plato's writings could go all night. It was not an uncommon idea that people need to discuss important topics for hours. In the Platonic dialogues, subject matters are discussed with a quality of attentiveness and openness to different views that could never fit into the time constraints of any TV show. Intelligent conversation flowers best when we make a commitment of time to give ourselves completely to the conversation. The meticulously timed habits of modern media are not the habits of the examined life. This is not to say that it is always improper to give thought to a subject in a limited time. However, spending a significant portion of one's entire life seeking understanding is critical to human development, and that cannot be fit into an episode of Nightline.

Those familiar with Noam Chomsky's thought about the media in the U.S. may recognize this flavor of assessment regarding concision in the media. Although, I believe that Chomsky's description of the media's manipulation of concision is structurally accurate, Chomsky's focus on media does not address the relationship between time and intelligent discourse from the most fundamental level. Chomsky criticism of the media has focused on the abuse of time limits by those who own the media. Media owners, according to Chomsky, deliberately manipulate the time limits of modern video media in ways that service their own agendas. The net effect of this manipulation is to limit the quality and diversity of talk we hear. As important as it is to recognize when people are abusing their position, the media is just leveraging a reality that is clearly demanded by the people. There are limits to the time we invest in useful conversation that make much more vicious demands for talk limiting concision than any media organization will ever impose upon us. This brutal demand to control the time we invest in our thought and talk comes from our own minds.

These time limits are constructed out of the limit of our willingness and work ethic to give due diligence to our own thinking. The strength of our character to open ourselves up to the extraordinary diversity of thought in the world constructs the limit of the time we give to seriously exploring a different point of view in our conversations. Any conversations that are not reducible to our own personally most recognized and rehearsed ideas and beliefs are often willfully shortened. This is particularly true when yielding ground to competing points of view is a real possibility. The time we give to seeking new understanding when the very process of such thinking challenges our current beliefs is limited by the measure of our ability to give hospitable welcome to others (people and ideas) who are very different. To the extent that we do not develop a deep and unquenchable passion to develop ourselves in seeking knowledge and improving our understanding, we are the victims of our own self-imposed time limits. The truth is that we all automatically edit ourselves to conform our conversations and personal explorations to the talk and thought limiting concision we demand via our own conscience and character.

The most important aspect of the issue of talk limiting concision required by modern media in the U.S. and its relationship to limiting the intelligence of our conversation has nothing to do with the media. It has to do with the character of citizens and their lived habits of thought and talk. In this Socratic perspective, the examined life demands our time and energy beyond that needed to get to the next commercial break or that needed to pick up a happy meal from McDonald's. If we want a quality thought life, we must work beyond the time limit required for the quick and easy confirmation of what we merely desire to believe. The media gets away with its economy of brevity because the habits of its consumers have already chosen that path. We are the ones making the demands for concision on the media by virtue of our lack of work ethic regarding the quality of our own thought lives and by our own appetite for entertaining distraction. We are the ones who give them the opportunity to leverage our demands to their advantage. This is not to say that media cannot inspire or reinforce a person's walk on the path of shortchanging their own thought life. The media most certainly does influence many people to think and speak poorly when discussing issues. However, the total set of influences that lead people to demand too much concision of their own thought life includes everything from their religion to their parents to the weather to the desire to distract themselves with the latest video game.

My upbringing in the 1960's and 1970's told me to fear the Orwellian type of dystopia. I was told that the ultimate downfall of free people would come through dictators who want to ban and burn good books. This did not happen in my country, which is the United States. What has happened is a different kind of tragedy of tremendous proportions. It is not a downfall of our infrastructure or our government. It is not a downfall of the people's ability to say or think whatever they want. It is a downfall of our people's desire to work hard to make sure that the quality of what they say and think is worthy of the highest standards. There are many people in the United States who have the precious freedom of speech to say and think anything they want. However, what they want is to indulge in trivia and entertaining distractions, which shortchanges their thinking life. The most common and insidious reinforcement of the self imposed concision of our thought life is our amazing appetite for distraction. The media is happy to comply, but the fault rests with the citizens. If I had to choose a symbol from dystopian literature to represent the greatest danger to freedom in United States, it would not be the "memory hole" from Orwell's 1984. It would be a bauble of entertainment from another dystopian vision, namely, the Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy from Huxley's Brave New World.

We eagerly spend our prosperity in the attempt to distract ourselves. In the United States there are 1001 centrifugal bumble-puppy proxies to distract us from investing our energies and attentiveness in the development of our human potentials. Discretionary time and income is often lavished upon any entertainment distraction, or additional material comforts we can afford. Playing video games takes up more time and personal priority in many people's lives than working to become a more just human being. That one can generate more popular interest in a YouTube video of someone farting on a toilet while singing a song than can be generated by calling upon people to work hard to be more educated, just and virtuous citizens is the hideously destructive result that manifests when entertainment becomes the only virtue of prosperity. Many U.S. citizens grow up more preoccupied with imaginary super-powers, which is the theme of a great many entertainment distractions, while mostly ignoring the development of their real human powers. If the average citizen spent the same time each week trying to improve themselves as they spent watching video for distractive entertainment purposes, we would not have to think about the social implications of concision in the media.

Any movement to increase the quality of thought in public discourse in the United States is not best founded upon a focus on the media's need serve its own interest. It must fundamentally focus on persuading citizens to spend more time and energy in productive ways. Inspire people to love to learn, think, and create with unquenchable passion, and you will make the usefulness of the manipulation of concision in the media obsolete. Cultivate the people's human character so their quest to improve themselves through leading an examined life is more entertaining than passive distractions, and you will build a foundation for a strong nation. Citizens who hunger for depth of thought and thirst for excellence of communication in their own living will not be consumers of media that manipulates concision to shortcut their desires. If enough people follow the path of giving more time and due diligence to their own thinking and discussions, the economics of brevity in the media will become unprofitable.

One of the great opportunities in Socratic research is to develop Socratic exercises and formalities of interaction that inspire and lead people to develop the enthusiasm and character needed to prioritize a greater portion of their time to their own self-improvement.

{Socrates interrupts the essay}

SOCRATES: Max? Excuse me.
MAX: Hey Socrates, how are you?
SOCRATES: Not well. I have been following the development of this essay and noticed that my name is being used a great deal as an adjective for many things. It is no longer just the Socratic method. And, by the way, one needs no specific method to admit ignorance or the need to work hard in order to minimize the capacity of ignorance to damage our lives. But now, I have observed that my name is applied as an adjective to modify perspective, education, dynamics, persistence, style, transformation, thinking, goal, ideal, temperament, courtesy, research, exercises and more. By the gods Max, I swear I could not possibly have a knowledge so great as to be accountable for all these things.
MAX: But it is hard not to use your name this way. You have become part of the cornerstone of western philosophy.
SOCRATES: I think I feel nauseated.
MAX: Would you like to discuss this?
SOCRATES: I would like very much to talk about it in depth. I must apologize, however, my profound depth of ignorance can in no way conform to the concision demanded by your tiny essay.
MAX: Perhaps, when we have more time. I will, in the meantime, consider your observation.
SOCRATES: That is all I ask.