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Great books for every subject

Great books for every subject?

You may have thought of the great-books approach as a way of teaching literature, but it can do far more than that. Great-books colleges like St. Thomas Aquinas or St. John’s apply the same method to physics, mathematics, and biology that they apply to philosophy and literature.

Is that really a good idea? Well, once again, we go back to Socrates.

In one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Socrates asks an ignorant slave boy how he would double the area of a square. He draws a square in the sand. I was going to go out to the sandbox and take some digital pictures, but (as I mentioned somewhere before) writers have deadlines, so I’ll do this the quick way. So here’s our square:

Now, how would you double the area?

The slave boy gives an obvious answer: make the sides twice as long. Okay, so Socrates tries that:

But look—if you draw two more lines, you see that we have four squares equal to the first one:

We haven’t doubled the area. We’ve quadrupled it.

At this point, your ordinary snooty upper-class Greek might have just laughed and told you that you couldn’t expect anything better from an ignorant slave. But Socrates doesn’t do that, because he’s trying to show us that somehow this knowledge is already in the slave’s mind, if we can only draw it out. So he leads the slave boy through this reasoning. I’m going to summarize it briefly, though in the original dialogue it takes a while, because Socrates has to make sure that the slave boy comes up with all the answers himself.

If I draw a diagonal through the first square, then I’ve divided it exactly in half, haven’t I?

And if I do that to each of the other squares, then I’ve divided each of them in half, too. And look—I’ve made another square.

But we said the large square was four times the area of the original square, didn’t we? And now we’ve divided each of the four small squares in half. So we have a square that’s half the area of the large square. But since the large square was four times the area of the original square, and this one is half the area of the large square, that means this one must be twice the area of the original square. We’ve succeeded in doubling the area of the square.

Now, Socrates could have just told the slave boy that, to make a square double in area to a given square, you make a square on the diagonal of the given square. If he had beaten the slave often and severely enough, he could have succeeded in making him memorize that as a fact of geometry. Instead, he let the slave make all the steps of the reasoning himself. Now the slave knows why that square is double the area of the original, and he’s not likely to repeat his mistake of doubling the sides. By discussing the problem, he learns the solution far more thoroughly than if he had just been told to memorize it.

The slave boy and Socrates are just two people. But in a classroom you’re likely to have a dozen or more. They’ll all have different abilities. Some will be slower to pick things up, and some will be faster. So the conversation becomes more complicated, and more complicated often means more productive.

But doesn’t this variety of abilities lead to problems? Won’t slower learners hold the fast ones back? Won’t the faster ones rocket past the slower ones, leaving them confused and frustrated?

The answer, it turns out, is no. And this is what makes the great-books method the truly democratic method of education.

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