Shame and Learning in Plato's Apology
J. Aultman Moore
In the Apology, Socrates proves to be the master teacher (1) of Athens in the way that he invites the city to overcome its "cognitive shame." Psychologist and teacher Paul Shane contends that much of the learning process begins in shame. (2) Shane defines shame in this way:
Shane holds that shame is an element in the learning process because the individual does not want to be in a position of having his or her ignorance exposed. In this way, "cognitive shame" spurs on the student's desire ". . . to explore and acquire, to master and become competent." (3) If an important element in the learning process of the pupil is her need to overcome this shame of not knowing then it seems that she is in a very awkward position, in fact an intolerable position! On the one hand her shame at not knowing is the spur that drives her on to want to transcend her limitations and the feelings of inadequacy, of ignorance that threaten her. On the other hand, the only way she can overcome her state of ignorance and free herself from the shame that threatens her is by revealing her ignorance and thereby making herself vulnerable to the very feelings of shame that will attend this disclosure. Shane implicitly points to this dilemma in his discussion of the questionable structure, paedagogically speaking, of the classroom:
School is a place where one shares with the teacher what one knows, and not what one does not know. The teacher asks a question and the child answers it. A student does not raise his hand to admit that he cannot answer a question. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a child generally shares with his teacher only his answers and rarely his questions. (4) How is the student to be freed from this uncomfortable and vicious circle between private, self-indictment and exposure to ridicule? The way out, according to Shane, is through the teacher's generous response to her pupils and her willingness to take a risk. It goes like this. A key ingredient in any learning process is the creation of a "climate of trust" (5) between teacher and pupil. It should be obvious that such a climate does not exist, according to Shane, in the way that schools operate, for the most part. This is because students are rewarded for knowing the answers and not for having questions. The cognitive shame that the learner feels can be put to good use, according to Shane, only if the teacher herself can be open about her own cognitive shortcomings with her students. If the teacher is capable of embracing her own ignorance in a generous way then she will, in turn, unlock the student's capacity to embrace her own and thus transform a deadly secret into the desire to learn, grow and master. It is in this way that a climate of trust is fostered between pupil and teacher and cognitive shame is overcome. (6)
There is an illuminating parallel, I submit, between Shane's discussion of the nature of cognitive shame and its dynamic and the situation of Socrates and "those with a reputation for wisdom" in Athens. There is, however, in this case a tragic twist: while the teacher, in this case, is fully willing to embrace his ignorance, the "pupils" stubbornly cling to their "knowledge," too ashamed to be found out as ignorant by the public and angry because their shame has forced them to admit to themselves that they fall short of their own self-image. Humiliated and angry, the "pupils" turn on the teacher, trump up slanderous charges against him and put him to death.
The story as reported in Plato's Apology is well known. Socrates is on trial for religious impiety, "making the weaker argument the stronger," and corrupting the youth of the city by teaching such things as these to them. Before the jury of 501 Socrates attempts to justify himself and to explain how this slander against him (diabole, Apology 21b2) has arisen. It all began, of course, with Chaerophon's trip to the oracle at Delphi and the rather startling question that he poses to the Pythian priestess there. Chaerophon had asked the priestess whether anyone was wiser than Socrates and the priestess responded that no one was wiser (aneilen oun he Puthia medena sophoteron einai, 21a5-6). Socrates puzzles over this for a long time, at a loss as to what the god means and wondering why the god speaks so enigmatically (ainittetai, 21b4). Hesitant and unsure, Socrates tells us that with great difficutly (mogis, 21b8) he turned to a sort of "investigation" of the matter by going to "some one of those who appear (7) to be wise" (21b9). He does this with the express purpose of refuting the oracle, (8) of expecting to come away with the distinct impression that he was not wiser than his interlocutor and hence not the wisest person in Athens as the god had said.
Socrates tells the jury that his experience in conversation with this individual (9) was that he appeared to be wise to many others present and most of all to himself (malista heauto, 21c7) but that he was not, in fact, wise. He says that when he tried to point this out to the person (deiknunai, 21c8) he aroused the enmity (apechthomen, 21d1) not only of the man with whom he conversed but with many of those who were present. Socrates departed and reckoned to himself (elogizomen, 21d2) that he was wiser than that man because while the latter has pretensions to knowledge when he is, in fact, quite ignorant (ouk eidos, 21d5) Socrates knew that he did not know and would never entertain false pretensions to knowledge. It is "in this certain, small respect" (smikro tini auto touto, 21d6), he says, that he is wiser, "what I don't know I don't even think I know" (hoti ha me oida oude oiomai eidenai, 21d7). Socrates' experience with this nameless politician proves to be paradigmatic, for when he proceeds with his inquiry "systematically" (ephexes, 21e3) he encounters the same kind of resistance and anger from the poets and craftsmen as he did from the politicians. There are, to be sure, some variations in the grounds of Socrates' critique of each of the three groups but fundamentally, the source of anger and resentment is the same: a refusal on the part of these socially esteemed groups to embrace their intellectual limitations (as modelled by Socrates) and thus overcome their cognitive shame. Instead of effectively overcoming their sense of shame at Socrates' invitation, accusations, hatred and slanders abound. Socrates tells us that bystanders were convinced that he himself was knowledgeable (sophon, 23a4) in the matters about which he was testing (exelenxo, 23a5) another. For the Athenians, Socrates' entire investigation was a clever trick, a charade that he carried on at their expense in order to prime his own ego. As Socrates saw it, the investigation was nothing short of a kind of philosophical version of divine worship (the word latreian, "service of or to the gods" is significant at 23c1). His call to his fellow Athenians to recognize and accept the almost absurdly limited character of their pretensions to knowledge was rooted in his deeply religious intuition that "the god alone is wise" (ho theos sophos einai, 23a5-6) and that "human wisdom is worth little or nothing" (he anthropine sophia oligou tinos axia estin kai oudenos, 23a6-7). In this way, then, Socrates' invitation to the Athenians to overcome their cognitive shame has roots in his sense that human wisdom consists in a certain trajectory toward the divine. This is, indeed, ironic for one who is being tried on charges of religious impiety. The cognitive shame of the Athenians is a certain hubristic refusal to welcome the new paradigm (paradeigma, 23b1) furnished for them by the god of what human wisdom truly is.
Of course, the shame that Socrates "indicts" the Athenians with and invites them to overcome is not only of a cognitive nature, it is also moral. As Socrates carries out his service on behalf of the god it becomes clear that his mission from the god is to rouse the Athenians from their moral and spiritual slumber and to keep them awake (30el-31a1). But this is too simply put because, for Socrates, the cognitive and the moral are intimately related. Self-examination, examination of others and friendly conversation pertaining to matters fundamental to a life lived well are, for Socrates, themselves constitutive of the good life. The Athenians' refusal to admit their cognitive limitations becomes, in a Socratic schema, a rejection of the life-changing and life-giving possibilities offered to them (through the god) of travelling the road to self-knowledge. They saw Socrates' challenge as life-threatening only. This is why Socrates is continually chastising the Athenians in the course of his defense for having the wrong priorities. He shames them for ignoring the rightful claims of the moral and intellectual life as they devote themselves to the accumulation of material wealth and other vanities: "Aren't you ashamed that you're anxious to secure as much money, reputation and honor as you can, but show no care or concern for understanding, truth and that your soul be as good as possible?" (29d9-e3) Socrates could not be the teacher of Athens, the new example of the meaning of human wisdom because his pupils refused to disclose the shameful secret of their ignorance, an ignorance that Socrates and the god invited them to overcome. They preferred, instead, to cling to their shame, swat the gadfly and doze on for the rest of their days (31a6).
Socrates, then, is the god's vehicle by virtue of being the teacher who invites those with a mere reputation for wisdom to overcome their cognitive shame. This life of willing subjection to the stings of the elenchus (Socrates' peculiar kind of "cross-examination" and refutation), sponsored by the god's mediator might have been a path to self-transcendence and self-knowledge. The only appropriate "shame" that one is to feel, in the new Socratic paradigm, is a sense of humility over the relative insignificance of human knowledge and feelings of awe and reverence before the wisdom of the god. It would have been a way by which "the wise" might have replaced their hubris (embodied in their refusal to acknowledge their cognitive/moral inadequacies) with true wisdom and virtue.
What is the paedagogical lesson that we are to learn from Professor Shane's analysis and the example of Socrates? First of all, it seems to me that we, as teachers of philosophy, must take absolutely seriously the moral injunction of Delphi (also central to Socrates' life and work): "Know Thyself!" It is only by being totally, even brutally honest with ourselves about what we know and what we don't that we shall ever be capable of creating that "climate of trust" that Shane holds is central to the unlocking of our students's potential. If we slide into fooling ourselves about who we are and what we lay claim to knowing it is very likely that we shall be ashamed of having our ignorance exposed in the classroom. There is nothing, it seems to me, that is more stifling of genuine and free inquiry in class than a teacher who is ashamed to acknowledge that he or she does not know. It is precisely this defensive atmosphere that suppresses wonder and focuses the students upon a quest for the "right answers" rather than the posing of fundamental questions.
Socrates and Dr. Shane would have us reorient our classrooms around the question rather than the answer. But, of course, the first, critical step to doing this is to realize that one does not know and that one needs to inquire.
Socrates' unique and stirring paedagogy has much to teach us today. Socrates is still, I submit, the paradigm of what it means not only to pose fundamental questions but to live them. In this way, then, he is never simply the teacher/lecturer who already has the answers to the questions that he poses. He is as much the student as the teacher, and this is so because he guilessly confronts and assents to (with the god as his impetus and guide) his own limitations. This, it seems to me, is what made him so popular with the youth, namely, his divinely inspired amateurism. Young people are freed up to learn from someone who is not a "know it all." We too, as teachers of philosophy, must come to know that we can only create that "climate of trust" with our students and invite them to take that first crucial step in overcoming their "cognitive shame" when we ourselves, with generous abandon, first embrace our own limitations. In philosophy, this art of wonder, let us be the first to admit (with Socrates) that the most we shall ever be is an amateur, in other words, a lover (of wisdom).
(1) Of course, Socrates repeatedly denies the role of teacher in the Apology as well as numerous other dialogues. This is true because, as I hope to make clearer in the course of this section, Socrates is always simultaneously teacher and pupil. He never claims to know any more than those with whom he is engaged. There is, surely, a certain degree of irony here but Socrates' fundamental orientation as the sort of teacher who is at the same time a learner is to be taken very seriously. Socrates, in fact, breaks down the distinction between teacher and pupil by making the learning process a collaborative one.
(2) Paul Shane, Ph.D., "Shame and Learning," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 50 (2), April 1980.
(3) Shane, 352.
(4) Shane, 350-351.
(5) Shane, 352.
(6) Shane, 352.
(7) The verb, here, dokounton, is slightly ambiguous. It can mean, one of those who seem or appear to be wise or one of those who have a reputation for being wise.
(8) This, I take it, is the grounds of his hesitation and difficulty, namely, that he is challenging the god's utterance.
(9) He appears to be someone involved in the political affairs of the city from Apology 21c4, tis ton politikon.