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Plato’s Socrates, Philosophy and Education

reviewed by Deron Boyles - September 17, 2019

coverTitle: Plato’s Socrates, Philosophy and Education
Author(s): James M. Magrini
Publisher: Springer Publishing, New York
ISBN: 3319713558, Pages: 140, Year: 2017
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The relative absence of philosophical questioning in schools is not only an intellectual and pedagogical problem; it poses risks and consequences for our broader society. To help combat this problem, James M. Magrini argues that we should appropriate Plato’s Socrates as a symbol of educative promise. To do so, Magrini distinguishes his approach to Plato by contrasting what he terms doctrinal versus non-doctrinal interpretations of the dialogues. The former purportedly is too restrictive, traditional, and formalistic, and the latter more interpretive and agentic. Magrini stipulates that his is a “non-systematic, non-formalized enactment of learning-through-questioning” (ix). Accordingly, his view of Plato’s Socrates is as participant with others in dialogue and conversation about what learning is of most worth, what makes a virtuous person, what counts as ethics, and so on.

One of Magrini’s major goals is to highlight the reductionism inherent in contemporary schooling, both P-12 and higher education, and to advance a humanities-rich counterargument. Schools should not further economistic vocationalism in which life is reduced to mere employment. Colleges and universities should not adopt a corporate business model whereby decisions are made in terms of return on investment. At risk, Magrini argues, is democratic deliberation and critical interpretation. When university life is reduced to grant funding and the amount of money graduates make, we find ourselves trapped in a techno-rational spiral that is difficult to escape. The tectonic shift from criticality to marketability is complete when faculty (hegemonically) reinforce corporate mission statements and the contrived practices that follow from them. On this point, Magrini is on firm ground. He is also correct to point out the abject proceduralism that infects much of teaching and learning. Overtaken by the hyperbole of STEM, beguiled by the convenience of technology, and utterly reduced to following standardized curriculum that fits with standardized tests, educators at all levels are losing the battle over authenticity and independent, critical thought.

Magrini relies heavily on the distinction between doctrinal and non-doctrinal readings of Plato’s Socrates. Instead of Socrates questioning respondents and leading them to knowledge, perplexity, or refutation (where Socratic questioning necessarily and structurally includes a questioner asking leading questions and a respondent replying to those questions), Magrini’s Socrates is unrestricted. “Viewing Plato’s dialogues as living conversations grants them the sense of incompleteness, which opens the potential for individual dialogues to point beyond themselves in reference to other dialogues and, in an interconnected manner, to gather meaning in ways that are irreducible to a single dialogue” (pp. 14–15, italics in original). What Magrini sets up is a link between doctrinal readings of Plato’s Socrates, philosophers of education, and procedural applications of dialogue in classrooms: all three are, in his view, wrong in their formalism and formulaic demonstration of dialogue.

Even if Magrini is correct that doctrinal interpretations of Plato’s Socrates are problematic, it is an enormous leap to suggest that they are responsible for how an entire field perceives the dialogues, and an even larger leap to suggest there is a correlation between doctrinally committed philosophers of education and how teachers operate in their classrooms. Said differently, Magrini’s explication of doctrinal and non-doctrinal interpretations of Plato and Socrates is interesting, but the dualism he creates belies the nuance for which he seems to ultimately argue. Specific to his critique of philosophy of education (sometimes noted as “philosophical foundations of education”), he overgeneralizes and uses questionable sources to make his case.

Specifically, Magrini bases much of his criticism of educational philosophy on books that, in my view, do not represent philosophy of education writ large. Two stand out: Ozman and Cramer’s Philosophical Foundations of Education and Wilbering’s Teach Like Socrates: Guiding Socratic Dialogues & Discussions in the Classroom. Magrini argues that “in the philosophical foundations of education, Plato’s Socrates is read as an idealist and epistemological absolutist” (3). He then continues to rely on Ozman and Cramer’s interpretation of Plato and Socrates as representative of the field. The problem is that the Ozman and Cramer book is a textbook that uses passages and excerpts typically assigned for survey courses. I am not suggesting that Magrini’s interpretation of the Ozman and Cramer book is wrong; I am claiming that using that source to indict an entire field is highly selective and problematic. Magrini also relies somewhat heavily on Wilbering to show how he represents a highly prescriptive approach to the classroom application of Socratic dialogue, oddly tracing such perfunctory formalism to Mortimer Adler and his “conservative-doctrinal” reading of Plato (p. 25). Setting Adler aside, even if Wilbering is as prescriptive as he appears to be in publishing a how-to manual for Socratic questioning, Magrini makes the manual somehow representative of philosophers of education clinging to petrified notions of idealism, foundationalism, and pedagogy. In so doing, he commits the red herring fallacy and risks undermining much that is interesting and worthy of consideration in the book. The overall argument suffers because of the highly selective sources upon which Magrini relies.

I also disagree with Magrini that analyzing philosophical inquiry is best-suited for qualitative research (p. 24). I have at least these two reasons: (a) relieving Plato’s Socrates of doctrinal standing does not mean he is now free to champion constructivism (Magrini commits a non sequitur); and (b) it not only does not follow that a non-doctrinal Socrates will be qualitatively research-disposed, it is a category flaw itself. Philosophical inquiry is, excuse the tautology, philosophical. Research in education has been plagued by the false dualism of a qualitative or quantitative allegiance since at least the 1980s. I’m supportive of qualitative research (and quantitative research [done well]), but we should not mistake a qualitative approach with philosophical research. It is different in kind from qualitative methods.

None of this is to suggest that Magrini’s book is not worthy of reading and considering. I think there is much to commend. Magrini demonstrates a deep knowledge of Platonic dialogues and his ultimate critique of schools and colleges is important. The over-use of italics may be distracting to readers, but Magrini is clearly passionate about the view for which he is arguing. Anyone in philosophy of education interested in re-thinking Plato, Socrates, and teaching Plato’s dialogues should know of this book. They should also be careful to note the selectivity of the sources on which Magrini relies.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 17, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23095, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 1:44:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Deron Boyles
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    DERON BOYLES is Professor of Philosophy of Education in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University. He is author of American Education and Corporations: The Free Market Goes to School; co-author, with Benjamin Baez, of The Politics of Inquiry; co-author, with Kenneth J. Potts, of From a Gadfly to a Hornet: Academic Freedom, Humane Education, and the Intellectual Life of Joseph Kinmont Hart; editor of Schools or Markets and The Corporate Assault on Youth; and author (forthcoming) of John Dewey's Imaginative Vision of Teaching.
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