Essays on Teaching

Essays on Teaching

by Bob Blaisdell, Dover Thrift Dover Thrift Editions

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Reflections on the teaching experience include selections from the works of Plato, Rousseau, Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Bertrand Russell, A. S. Neill, and contemporary American authors.  See more details below


Reflections on the teaching experience include selections from the works of Plato, Rousseau, Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Bertrand Russell, A. S. Neill, and contemporary American authors.  

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Essays on Teaching

By Bob Blaisdell

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-78321-5



from Protagoras

(c. 380 B.C.)

The philosopher Plato (c. 427–347 B.C.) dramatizes the great teacher Socrates (469–399 B.C.) relating to his young, eager, naïve companion how he (Socrates) scrutinized the pedagogical claims of Protagoras for another young, eager Athenian, Hippocrates: "You are going to commit your soul to the care of a man whom you call a Sophist. And yet I hardly think that you know what a Sophist is; and if not, then you do not even know to whom you are committing your soul and whether the thing to which you commit yourself be good or evil." One of the pleasures of this Socratic dialogue is the humor and the dramatic tension Plato builds, as well as his representation of the character of Socrates, whose delight in argument and wisdom and his love of youth's earnestness allow him to captivate his listeners.

Companion: Where do you come from, Socrates? And yet I need hardly ask the question, for I know that you have been in chase of the fair Alcibiades. I saw the day before yesterday; and he had got a beard like a man—and he is a man, as I may tell you in your ear. But I thought that he was still very charming.

Socrates: What of his beard? Are you not of Homer's opinion, who says "Youth is most charming when the beard first appears"? And that is now the charm of Alcibiades.

Companion: Well, and how do matters proceed? Have you been visiting him, and was he gracious to you?

Socrates: Yes, I thought that he was very gracious; and especially today, for I have just come from him, and he has been helping me in an argument. But shall I tell you a strange thing? I paid no attention to him, and several times I quite forgot that he was present.

Companion: What is the meaning of this? Has anything happened between you and him? For surely you cannot have discovered a fairer love than he is; certainly not in this city of Athens.

Socrates: Yes, much fairer.

Companion: What do you mean—a citizen or a foreigner?

Socrates: A foreigner.

Companion: Of what country?

Socrates: Of Abdera.

Companion: And is this stranger really in your opinion a fairer love than the son of Cleinias?

Socrates: And is not the wiser always the fairer, sweet friend?

Companion: But have you really met, Socrates, with some wise one?

Socrates: Say rather, with the wisest of all living men, if you are willing to accord that title to Protagoras.

Companion: What! Is Protagoras in Athens?

Socrates: Yes; he has been here two days.

Companion: And do you just come from an interview with him?

Socrates: Yes; and I have heard and said many things.

Companion: Then, if you have no engagement, suppose that you sit down tell me what passed, and my attendant here shall give up his place to you.

Socrates: To be sure; and I shall be grateful to you for listening.

Companion: Thank you, too, for telling us.

Socrates: That is thank you twice over. Listen then.

Last night, or rather very early this morning, Hippocrates, the son of Apollodorus and the brother of Phason, gave a tremendous thump with his staff at my door; someone opened to him, and he came rushing in and bawled out: "Socrates, are you awake or asleep?"

I knew his voice, and said: "Hippocrates, is that you? And do you bring any news?"

"Good news," he said; "nothing but good."

"Delightful," I said; "but what is the news? And why have you come hither at this unearthly hour?"

He drew nearer to me and said: "Protagoras is come."

"Yes," I replied; "he came two days ago: have you only just heard of his arrival?"

"Yes, by the gods," he said; "but not until yesterday evening."

At the same time he felt for the truckle-bed, and sat down at my feet, and then he said: "Yesterday quite late in the evening, on my return from Oenoe whither I had gone in pursuit of my runaway slave Satyrus, as I meant to have told you, if some other matter had not come in the way; on my return, when we had done supper and were about to retire to rest, my brother said to me: 'Protagoras is come.' I was going to you at once, and then I thought that the night was far spent. But the moment sleep left me after my fatigue, I got up and came hither direct."

I, who knew the very courageous madness of the man, said: "What is the matter? Has Protagoras robbed you of anything?"

He replied, laughing: "Yes, indeed he has, Socrates, of the wisdom which he keeps from me."

"But, surely," I said, "if you give him money, and make friends with him, he will make you as wise as he is himself."

"Would to heaven," he replied, "that this were the case! He might take all that I have, and all that my friends have, if he pleased. But that is why I have come to you now, in order that you may speak to him on my behalf; for I am young, and also I have never seen nor heard him; (when he visited Athens before I was but a child) and all men praise him, Socrates; he is reputed to be the most accomplished of speakers. There is no reason why we should not go to him at once, and then we shall find him at home. He lodges, as I hear, with Callias the son of Hipponicus: let us start."

I replied: "Not yet, my good friend; the hour is too early. But let us rise and take a turn in the court and wait about there until daybreak; when the day breaks, then we will go. For Protagoras is generally at home, and we shall be sure to find him; never fear."

Upon this we got up and walked about in the court, and I thought that I would make trial of the strength of his resolution. So I examined him and put questions to him. "Tell me, Hippocrates," I said, "as you are going to Protagoras, and will be paying your money to him, what is he to whom you are going? And what will he make of you? If, for example, you had thought of going to Hippocrates of Cos, the Asclepiad, and were about to give him your money, and someone had said to you: 'You are paying money to your namesake Hippocrates, O Hippocrates; tell me, what is he that you give him money?' how would you have answered?"

"I should say," he replied, "that I gave money to him as a physician."

"And what will he make of you?"

"A physician," he said.

"And if you were resolved to go to Polycleitus the Argive, or Pheidias the Athenian, and were intending to give them money, and someone had asked you: 'What are Polycleitus and Pheidias? And why do you give them this money?' How would you have answered?"

"I should have answered that they were sculptors."

"And what will they make of you?"

"A sculptor, of course."

"Well now," I said, "you and I are going to Protagoras, and we are ready to pay him money on your behalf. If our own means are sufficient, and we can gain him with these, we shall be only too glad; but if not, then we are to spend the money of your friends as well. Now suppose, that while we are thus enthusiastically pursuing our object someone were to say to us: 'Tell me, Socrates, and you Hippocrates, what is Protagoras, and why are you going to pay him money?' How should we answer? I know that Pheidias is a sculptor, and that Homer is a poet; but what appellation is given to Protagoras? How is he designated?"

"They call him a Sophist, Socrates," he replied.

"Then we are going to pay our money to him in the character of a Sophist?"


"But suppose a person were to ask this further question: 'And how about yourself? What will Protagoras make of you, if you go to see him?'"

He answered, with a blush upon his face ( for the day was just beginning to dawn, so that I could see him): "Unless this differs in some way from the former instances, I suppose that he will make a Sophist of me."

"By the gods," I said, "and are you not ashamed at having to appear before the Greeks in the character of a Sophist?"

"Indeed, Socrates, to confess the truth, I am."

"But you should not assume, Hippocrates, that the instruction of Protagoras is of this nature: may you not learn of him in the same way that you learned the arts of the grammarian, musician, or trainer, not with the view of making any of them a profession, but only as a part of education, and because a private gentleman and freeman ought to know them?"

"Just so," he said; "and that, in my opinion, is a far truer account of the teaching of Protagoras."

I said: "I wonder whether you know what you are doing?"

"And what am I doing?"

"You are going to commit your soul to the care of a man whom you call a Sophist. And yet I hardly think that you know what a Sophist is; and if not, then you do not even know to whom you are committing your soul and whether the thing to which you commit yourself be good or evil."

"I certainly think that I do know," he replied.

"Then tell me, what do you imagine that he is?"

"I take him to be one who knows wise things," he replied, "as his name implies."

"And might you not," I said, "affirm this of the painter and of the carpenter also: Do not they, too, know wise things? But suppose a person were to ask us: 'In what are the painters wise?' We should answer: 'In what relates to the making of likenesses, and similarly of other things.' And if he were further to ask: 'What is the wisdom of the Sophist, and what is the manufacture over which he presides?' How should we answer him?"

"How should we answer him, Socrates? What other answer could there be but that he presides over the art which makes men eloquent?"

"Yes," I replied, "that is very likely true, but not enough; for in the answer a further question is involved: Of what does the Sophist make a man talk eloquently? The player on the lyre may be supposed to make a man talk eloquently about that which he makes him understand, that is about playing the lyre. Is not that true?"


"Then about what does the Sophist make him eloquent? Must not he make him eloquent in that which he understands?"

"Yes, that may be assumed."

"And what is that which the Sophist knows and makes his disciple know?"

"Indeed," he said, "I cannot tell."

Then I proceeded to say: "Well, but are you aware of the danger which you are incurring? If you were going to commit your body to someone who might do good or harm to it, would you not carefully consider and ask the opinion of your friends and kindred, and deliberate many days as to whether you should give him the care of your body? But when the soul is in question, which you hold to be of far more value than the body, and upon the good or evil of which depends the well-being of your all, about this never consulted either with your father or with your brother or with anyone of us who are your companions. But no sooner does this foreigner appear, than you instantly commit your soul to his keeping. In the evening, as you say, you hear of him, and in the morning you go to him, never deliberating or taking the opinion of anyone as to whether you ought to entrust yourself to him or not. You have quite made up your mind that you will at all hazards be a pupil of Protagoras, and are prepared to expend all the property of yourself and of your friends in carrying out at any price this determination, although, as you admit, you do not know him, and have never spoken with him: and you call him a Sophist, but are manifestly ignorant of what a Sophist is; and yet you are going to commit yourself to his keeping."

When he heard me say this, he replied: "No other inference, Socrates, can be drawn from your words."

I proceeded: "Is not a Sophist, Hippocrates, one who deals wholesale or retail in the food of the soul? To me that appears to be his nature."

"And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul?"

"Surely," I said, "knowledge is the food of the soul; and we must take care, my friend, that the Sophist does not deceive us when he praises what he sells, like the dealers wholesale or retail who sell the food of the body; for they praise indiscriminately all their goods, without knowing what are really beneficial or hurtful: neither do their customers know, with the exception of any trainer or physician who may happen to buy of them. In like manner those who carry about the wares of knowledge, and make the round of the cities, and sell or retail them to any customer who is in want of them, praise them all alike; though I should not wonder, O my friend, if many of them were really ignorant of their effect upon the soul; and their customers equally ignorant, unless he who buys of them happens to be a physician of the soul. If, therefore, you have understanding of what is good and evil, you may safely buy knowledge of Protagoras or of anyone; but if not, then, O my friend, pause, and do not hazard your dearest interests at a game of chance. For there is far greater peril in buying knowledge than in buying meat and drink: the one you purchase of the wholesale or retail dealer, and carry them away in other vessels, and before you receive them into the body as food, you may deposit them at home and call in any experienced friend who knows what is good to be eaten or drunken, and what not, and how much, and when; and then the danger of purchasing them is not so great. But you cannot buy the wares of knowledge and carry them away in another vessel; when you have paid for them you must receive them into the soul and go your way, either greatly harmed or greatly benefited; and therefore we should deliberate and take counsel with our elders; for we are still young—too young to determine such a matter. And now let us go, as we were intending, and hear Protagoras; and when we have heard what he has to say, we may take counsel of others; for not only is Protagoras at the house of Callias, but there is Hippias of Elis, and, if I am not mistaken, Prodicus of Ceos, and several other wise men."

To this we agreed, and proceeded on our way until we reached the vestibule of the house; and there we stopped in order to conclude a discussion which had arisen between us as we were going along; and we stood talking in the vestibule until we had finished and come to an understanding. And I think that the doorkeeper, who was a eunuch, and who was probably annoyed at the great inroad of the Sophists, must have heard us talking. At any rate, when we knocked at the door, and he opened and saw us, he grumbled: "They are Sophists—he is not at home," and instantly gave the door a hearty bang with both his hands. Again we knocked, and he answered without opening: "Did you not hear me say that he is not at home, fellows?" "But, my friend," I said, "you need not be alarmed; for we are not Sophists, and we are not come to see Callias, but we want to see Protagoras; and I must request you to announce us." At last, after a good deal of difficulty, the man was persuaded to open the door.

When we entered, we found Protagoras taking a walk in the cloister; and next to him, on one side, were walking Callias, the son of Hipponicus, and Paralus, the son of Pericles, who, by the mother's side, is his half-brother, and Charmides, the son of Glaucon. On the other side of him were Xanthippus, the other son of Pericles, Philippides, the son of Philomelus; also Antimoerus of Mende, who of all the disciples of Protagoras is the most famous, and intends to make sophistry his profession. A train of listeners followed him; the greater part of them appeared to be foreigners, whom Protagoras had brought with him out of the various cities visited by him in his journeys, he, like Orpheus, attracting them by his voice, and they following. I should mention also that there were some Athenians in the company. Nothing delighted me more than the precision of their movements: they never got into his way at all; but when he and those who were with him turned back, then the band of listeners parted regularly on either side; he was always in front, and they wheeled round and took their places behind him in perfect order.


Excerpted from Essays on Teaching by Bob Blaisdell. Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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