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THE LIE OF SOCRATES

I only know that I dont know anything


Socrates.
Socrates was a great guy. He never explained things to people, but asked questions, so
that they could find out the truth by themselves. This is called maieutic.
One day, some people were bothered by his teachings and forced him to drink a cup
of hemlock. I dont know what that is, but I guess it is a poison because, after he drank,
he died. (It seems that was the point). Socrates never wrote anything, but his disciple
Plato did write very much. If we read the The Republic or Platos Dialogues, we can learn
much about the thinking of Socrates.
But, there is a little detail about Socrates that doesnt please me. One time, Socrates
happened to say, I only know that I dont know anything, and that was the phrase that
passed into history! Most people dont know the opinions of Socrates about love or the
formation of a state, but do know that he said, I only know that I dont know anything;
and what bothers me is that he was lying! Socrates did know many things. Then, why did
he say that he didnt know anything?
Socrates, with his celebrated act of modesty, screwed all of us up. If Socrates being
Socrates, said that he didnt know anything, how we can say that we know anything?; and
the truth is, many times, we do know some things. Let us not fool ourselves: if we dont
know anything, what are we doing here, playing the scientific research game?
It is possible to argue that this phrase of Socrates is only a healthy reminder of our
limitations. The universe is so wide that, no matter how much we study it, unsolved
mysteries will always remain, there will always be new things to learn and new
knowledge will quickly replace the old knowledge. This is true, and is good to remember.
It is good to take account of this... almost always.
A short time ago, one of my students decided to stop using the time in my class to set the
sheets of his notebook on fire, and began attending my speech. When he did so, he began
to understand the subject. The day came when I asked a question and he answered
precisely. I approached, pointing at him, and said: Exactly! The young man smiled. His
eyes brightened. I knew exactly what was happening: he was proud of knowing!
This pleasure is addictive, so these situations began to happen more and more
frequently. He was addicted to stepping to the board, and answering many of my
questions well. I always realized that, when he answered me, he felt happy. His grades
had risen surprisingly. I had almost forgotten about his period of pyromania, when I
wondered if I should call Smokey the Bear or use reverse psychology.
The pleasure of knowledge conquered a new member. What should my response have
been? I imagined the reaction of a sad, old, hunched-over teacher, who thinks that the
teachers duty is to force students to swallow the bitter medicine of education; a teacher
armed with the ascetic idea that the good kids study hard because it is their duty to their
parents and society; a teacher who spouts plenty of old and rusty proverbs. What would
he have said? Surely, he would shut the offensive enthusiasm of the young man down by

recalling the old quote: I only know that I dont know, said Socrates, why do you
believe that you know anything?
No! Why would I do it that way? What could be wrong with leaving him feeling like
a superstar for a moment? I was not offended by his happiness. On the contrary, at that
moment I felt that we were becoming equals. And, turning the teacher and the student
into equals is (read with a pedagogical voice) the ultimate goal of the teaching-learning
process. The things that I know, he also began to know. That is the success of a teacher.
I felt like a superstar, too.
I understood that he was living a magic moment. What pleasure in life can be
compared to that of knowing that we know? Before, we didnt know: there was a
mystery. After, the mystery is revealed, now... we know! Who cares that the universe is
still full of mysteries? The mystery of today, the mystery of here... is no longer a mystery.
Now, the answer is part of us!
It serves nothing to build large universities where so many students are to be enrolled.
It serves nothing to have them sit in front of us, if they are not there to study. How can we
change this? How can we get more young people applying to study? How can we get
those who apply themselves a little to apply more? Should we tell them that, if they study
very hard, they will earn more money? We know well enough that we cannot guarantee
that. Should we tell them that it is something that they owe to society, because of the big
investment in them? Here is a fact that all the old teachers have to learn: using guilt
doesnt work
The answer could be in the understanding of human nature. Human beings function
by means of their passions. The best way to guarantee that people study, and study hard,
is making sure that studying makes them happy! I dont know if there is a way to attain
this goal. Probably some persons were born with a predisposition to enjoy learning.
Maybe it is something that appears in childhood, something in which educators can
intervene. Now, I say that I dont know (but I said it because I really dont know).
What I do know is that we honor Socrates more by re-creating in our life his passion
for knowledge, instead of repeating like a parrot the most hypocritical phrase in his
repertoire. Socrates was a great guy. He educated the young people of his time, and was
very brave drinking that hemlock. But, if you, like me, are captivated by the great
wisdom in the Dialogues, you will agree with me that, sometimes, he was somewhat
fibber.
Lydia Alvarez Camacho