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Thrasymachus Online?

Whenever I teach Plato’s Republic in small seminar settings or reading groups with my students, I always relish the moment when we encounter together Thrasymachus’s famous blush near the end of Book One. When this is pointed out to them, students are often surprised that Plato should bother to include such a seemingly innocuous detail in his masterfully constructed text. “Why does our author put this in the text?” they wonder, since it has no obvious bearing on the action or the argument of the dialogue. And what does it mean that Thrasymachus, this remarkably brash and accomplished teacher of rhetoric, a man so bold as to candidly declare before others that justice is merely serving the advantage of the stronger, should blush at the hands of Socrates? The ensuing conversations with students over the issues at stake in these questions don’t simply prepare the class to reflect on the rest of the dialogue with greater care and insight. As we talk about these issues, in person and face to face, our conversational community at once embodies and demonstrates the unique character of the educational enterprise that the college and university experience ought to represent.

I am prompted to reflect on this particular experience because, as a professor of Political Science at a small, Catholic, liberal arts college (soon to be university), I continue to experience first-hand the administrative push for an increase in our school’s online offerings. This increasingly aggressive advocacy is surely felt by many of my peers across the academy and throughout secondary education. It is possible that many individuals even support such efforts. The short-term economic case for such a move no doubt seems strong for all involved. By not requiring brick-and-mortar classrooms (and all of the infrastructure required to support such a learning environment), colleges and universities can increase enrollments beyond normal class sizes while lowering their overhead, making it more affordable for cash-strapped students to earn degrees.

Such an arrangement also seems more just. Making more courses available online eliminates some of the barriers facing prospective students who, through no fault of their own, are kept from attending class on campus because of their jobs or dependent care or distance from school. Nor is it obvious that moving classes online (or even to a flipped setting) necessarily degrades the education offered. Evidence suggests that students, especially when they are more motivated or already have some background in a particular subject, do just as well in online classes, if not better, as they do in a traditional classroom (see the U.S. Department of Education’s report “Evaluation of Evidence Based Practices in Online Learning”). Expanding online offerings thus appears to produce a win for all involved: college education becomes more accessible to a wider demographic; institutions of higher education get more students; and no one sacrifices educational integrity.

What Is Lacking Online

Of course, this is so simplistic as to be risible; it rests on the reassuring delusion that “all good things go together.” And let us set aside those cases where flipping or blending the classroom is not possible. Or where students lack the experience and motivation to succeed without instructors encouraging them in person to excel. Let us instead focus on the fact that arguments in favor of online instruction operate on the preposterous but unstated premise that becoming educated involves the mere transfer of information and technique from one jug (the instructor’s brain or textbook or PowerPoint slide) into another jug (the students’ notebooks, laptops, or, if we’re lucky, their heads).

This premise assumes that education is merely about the acquisition of information and skills (and usually vocational at that) and not, say, self-knowledge, or even the wisdom required to exercise responsibly the information and skills students hope to attain. Such a premise was most famously called into question by W.E.B. Du Bois, who noted in his essay “The Talented Tenth” that the “true object of education is not to make men into carpenters, it is to make carpenters men.” Now the goal of making students into fully mature human beings might sound ridiculous to a contemporary audience, whose members (parents, policy makers, and pundits) are already convinced that the price tag of a college degree can only be justified by the kind of professions that STEM disciplines make possible. But a version of this very goal is already the stated mission of virtually every institution of higher education in the land, all of which aspire to produce, in some form or another, responsible and civic minded citizens of the world. Let us not indulge the cynical temptation to think that our institutions of higher education are not serious about their own mission statements. Let us instead take them at their word.

If colleges and universities want to make students into fully mature human beings, then that requires having some sense as to what makes them responsible. But responsibility implies accountability to others and that implies a condition of publicity and transparency. It requires being able to identify who owes what to whom. And it requires those in charge to be able to answer for any alleged shortcomings on this score. Our own democratic republic requires just that kind of transparent publicity for our electoral politics to hold accountable our public officials.

Publicity and Accountability

As it turns out, the kind of publicity necessary to preserve the freedom that we so cherish is also critical to the deepest education we can afford our students: an education towards self-knowledge. This is no new insight. In fact, this insight plays an indispensable role in one of the most famous moments of one of the most famous books on the philosophy of education ever “penned.” And this returns us to where we began: Thrasymachus’s blush in Plato’s Republic. As anyone remotely familiar with The Republic knows, this classic text tells in Ten Books the fascinating effort by Socrates and his interlocutors to create in speech a perfectly just society over the course of one evening. But for this amazing journey to unfold, Socrates must first show his fellow conversationalists that they do not know what justice is. The education in justice that he seeks to provide must begin by establishing that an education in justice is necessary.

To that end, Socrates, over the course of Book One, disposes of three definitions of justice proffered by Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. The last treatment is particularly interesting since it involves the refutation of a well-known sophist, a potential rival of Socrates in educating the young, and a man who, as we have seen, boldly declares that justice is merely serving the advantage of the stronger. Indeed, Thrasymachus is a formidable interlocutor because he offers a powerful defense of the goodness of injustice. But in refuting him, Socrates manages to induce a powerful reaction from his tenacious interlocutor: in being compelled to agree, contrary to his initial assertion, that the just man is good and wise and the unjust is unlearned and bad, Thrasymachus turns crimson.

In the wake of this famous blush, the spirited Thrasymachus becomes a much more pliant conversationalist. This newly gentled citizen of The Republic’s intellectual community allows Socrates to conclude a defense of the goodness of justice that will prepare for the extensive treatment of justice that follows in the rest of the work. Thrasymachus’s blush thus presents a critical moment in facilitating the education towards justice experienced by both Socrates’ interlocutors and Plato’s readers.

But why does Thrasymachus blush? In asking this, we put ourselves in the position of our students when we wonder, for instance, if Thrasymachus was simply vain and here got shown up by Socrates. Did he hope to show off in front of prospective clients in an effort to gain more fees-paying students? Perhaps he is just not that good at rhetoric and is embarrassed at having been tripped-up by Socrates and the subsequent loss of clientele that this entails. Or does he blush because Socrates’ refutation has exposed as hollow his claims to know the awful truth about the weakness of justice? Does his blush reveal that, despite his outrageously candid claim to see through the hollowness of honor and self-restraint, a pose that allows him to defy conventional opinion, Thrasymachus possesses a deeper underlying attachment to honor and justice than he is himself aware? Does his shame amount to a self-indictment, a case where Thrasymachus has weighed and measured himself and found himself to be wanting?

It is not my purpose here to settle a dispute that has perennially engaged and puzzled students and scholars of Plato’s work. What I am interested in are the conditions required to produce that shame. And it seems painfully evident that inducing such a reaction required publicity; it required an audience. Socrates could not have provoked such embarrassment in Thrasymachus had the two of them not been surrounded by several young men interestedly watching their exchange in person and face-to-face. This is crucial.

That Thrasymachus was held to account before others induces an experience that makes him accountable before himself. Having made public claims to know the truth about justice and then having those claims publicly exposed as bankrupt, induces an experience in him that Thrasymachus can’t simply ignore. The shame he experiences involuntarily brings to the surface things about himself that he did not know and that he must face, even if he chooses to address them later more fully in private.

Being Turned

Thrasymachus can only come to these insights about himself, insights of which he was unaware before, because he had to face others and thus be accountable to them for the truth claims he made. Had he conducted this conversation not before the likes of Polemarchus, Glaucon, and Adeimantus, but in an online chat room where no one could see him and force him to stand his ground, Thrasymachus would not have been so embarrassed. Even in a live video discussion with his classmates and instructor (what’s termed a “synchronous” online class), our Thrasymachus would still enjoy the distance and protection of a screen, revealing the absurdity of a pixelated publicity. Faced with potentially uncomfortable questions from his peers and his instructor, he could simply push back from his laptop, or as is more likely, go check his Facebook page or play Fortnite.

The private world of screens thus not only allows Thrasymachus to remain anonymous to others, but to himself; the parts about himself that he discovers in conversation in person with Socrates would remain submerged and thus unknown to him. And by not taking seriously the challenges posed by Socrates and the presence of others, Thrasymachus online can remain intransigently attached to his own flawed positions. Of course, in this case, we would be denied both the pleasure of watching Socrates moderate Thrasymachus and the ensuing treatment of justice that such moderation makes possible. All of us would be much poorer as a result.

The publicity of Thrasymachus’ confrontation with Socrates is thus instrumental to his education and to the education afforded us by Plato’s Republic. If educators are truly serious about the publicly stated goals of their institutions, then they must fight to preserve the condition of publicity so crucial to the cultivation of responsibility that belongs to us as citizens and human beings. And that means preserving the brick-and-mortar spaces where teachers and students can publicly engage each other in challenging, but always professional and mutually respectful, discourse.

Proponents of pure lecture will find no apology in this effort to recover the traditional classroom setting; this is no luddite’s lament. The pedagogical virtue of publicity consists in the engagement and accountability it makes possible for all involved, teacher and students alike. The benefits derived from Thrasymachus’s blush mean that those instructors who only want to deliver content from on high, as it were, must stop talking at their charges and begin a dialogue with them; they must step out from behind the lectern and enter with their students into a vibrant and robust community of public discourse. This means, among other things, experimenting with and providing support for those pedagogies, like Reacting to the Past, a role playing based teaching strategy, that require students to face each other as they deliver speeches and engage in cross-table debate, coalition building, negotiations, and compromise. Such pedagogies revivify the classroom while fostering student capacity for civil discourse and public accountability.

Needless to say, such publicity is missing from an educational enterprise that aggressively pushes for more online courses in the name of cost-cutting and which operates under the gross delusion that education is simply the transfer of information and technique from professor to student. While administrators in higher education have a duty to keep their eyes on the “bottom line,” they also have a duty to preserve the integrity of the intellectual enterprise that gives their institutions meaning and purpose. Those faculty and administrators who continue to push for more online offerings without attention to the consequences of such a change effectively abdicate their responsibility as educators. As a matter of justice, they deserve to be embarrassed. Of course, hidden in their private offices and suites, with their faces concealed by spreadsheets and screens, we will never see them blush. And, perhaps most depressingly, they will never know they should.

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