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Amy Guttman said what?

April 26, 2013

Amy Guttman (president of the University of Pennsylvania) on Charlie Rose (April 25th) regarding online education:

We have to acknowledge there are skeptics out there and I like to give the example of the skeptic who said, you know, “this new invention is, umm, to be mistrusted, uh, because it gives the impression of wisdom rather than wisdom itself” and that was Socrates about – what was he talking about – it was a new technology, it was writing, rather than memorization, and so he really thought if you don’t memorize, you don’t learn, and we found out you can learn from writing and then textbooks came and textbooks were going to put us out of business, but it takes an embracing of the new and I have to credit our faculty for doing that.

Well, of course, Guttman is attempting to refer to the classic Platonic work Phaedrus (see this excerpt).   This particular passage has received intense analysis over the centuries, and the consensus view is that Socrates complaint is more about sophistry – the public misuse of words – as contrasted with the so-called “Socratic method” where claims are analyzed in depth through the logical  and active questioning.

Besides misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresenting) the view in Phaedrus, Guttman’s claim that writing was a “new technology” in Socrates’ era simply does not make sense.  Socrates himself did not write, but Linear A dates back to the 18th century BCE, and Linear B dates back to about 1375 BCE, while the Greek alphabet has been used since the 8th century BCE (its ancestor Phoenician dates back to the 12th century BCE).  The story Socrates tells in the dialogue  (which Phaedrus attacks as having been fabricated) is about Egyptian hieroglyphics which are far more ancient – dating back to the 33rd century BCE.  So in Socrates’s time, writing was a technology that was actively used by Greek speakers for over a millennium, and the Greek alphabet was centuries old, and the type of writing Socrates used (as a metaphor) dated back nearly three millennia. 

Finally, what could Guttman possibly have meant by textbooks would put universities out of business?  Textbooks far predate the invention of the university, and at the birth of the medieval university, they were already well established.  See, for example, these descriptions of textbooks for study in Theology and Medicine at the University of Paris (Sorbonne) at the start of the 1270 decade  (for theology:  the Bible and Peter Lombard’s Sentences; for Medicine: various textbooks primarily by Byzantine, Arab, and Jewish physicians).  When the University of Pennsylvania was founded in 1740, textbooks were certainly well established (for example, in 1740 David Hume wrote his Treatise on Human Nature – so let’s go back a century further, to the 1640s.  In Boston Latin Grammar School, students used Aesop’s Fables, Ward’s Latin Grammar, Caesar’s Commentaries, Tully’s Epistles, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virgil, and Greek Grammar.  Harvard’s 1643 entrance exam focused on Latin and Greek, suggesting that textbooks in these subjects were widespread. The New England Primer was widely used starting in 1690 and was printed at times by the most famous pre-revolutionary publisher of them all:  Benjamin Franklin.  It reigned supreme as an elementary textbook until it was displaced first by Noah Webster’s “Blue Black Speller” and then by the McGuffy Readers.  I have personally seen a collection of American colonial mathematics textbooks displayed at UC Berkeley

So, in the course of a single run-on sentence, Guttman managed misrepresent the message of the Phaedrus (without ever giving its title), incorrectly date the birth of writing by at least three millennia, and fail to understand how textbooks and higher-education have co-evolved since the founding of University of Paris.

Amy Guttman was trying to reassure those of us who are concerned about MOOCs.  I am not assuaged, and in fact, even more anxious when I see Guttman’s argument.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2013 7:04 am

    Not many years ago, biblical scholar Louis H. Feldman came to that eureka conclusion that Homer was a literate poet as evidenced, at least, by the fact that in the Iliad story of Bellerophon a deadly letter is written — and not on a clunky stone but on a folding table (“Homer and the Near East: The Rise of the Greek Genius” Biblical Archaeologist 59.1 [96], p16). That looks and sounds like this: γράψας ἐν πίνακι πτυκτῷ θυμοφθόρα πολλά (ILIAD 6.169) which also suggests mortals – human beings – have been writing just about as long as they speak. The writing Plato putting spoken words in the mouth of Socrates by writing them down was a reader of Homer.

    We all know what you mean when you write, “Socrates himself did not write.” This is really to say that what we know best of Socrates has been written by others who knew him. Doesn’t Xenophon have Socrates writing (in Memorabilia 4.12-14) or at the least have him guiding Euthydemus in his writing? This would mean either that Plato’s Socrates and Xenophon’s have different notions of writing; or that perhaps, as you suggest, Guttman has grossly misread what Plato has written.

  2. April 26, 2013 12:08 pm

    Kurk, first, thanks for reminding me of the Xenophon passage. Great catch! I had completely forgotten about it. I should have clarified that that I was speaking of Plato’s Socrates — I am not prepared to say anything about the historical Socrates.

    Second, thanks for the Louis Feldman citation. I am a huge Feldman fan, and I am going to track down that article.

    Third, Amy Guttman is in many ways a fascinating figure to watch. (You may want to watch the interview which is now online.) I hate to say it, but the person she reminds me most of is Larry Summers. They both have a certain populist tone in their comments, and the willingness to speak in the broadest of strokes rather than the usual precision of the academy.

  3. April 27, 2013 7:19 am

    Theophrastus,
    What is fascinating is how fixed in Amy Guttman’s conception Socrates is (and he seems to her to be the historical Socrates “really thinking” real thoughts for her somehow): “that was Socrates about – what was he talking about – it was a new technology, it was writing, rather than memorization, and so he really thought if you don’t memorize, you don’t learn.”

    Hope you enjoy the Feldman article. As I recall, it brings forward in a compelling way the case for widespread literacy earlier than has been imagined.

    I did watch the interview you’ve linked to. It reminds me in some ways of all the hype in 1997, when Peter Drucker prophesied those 16 years ago: “Universities won’t survive. The future is outside the traditional campus, outside the traditional classroom. Distance learning is coming on fast.” The ironies are, of course, that Guttman would appeal to “learning” of millennia ago as the new vogue. No doubt she is correct in saying that technologies are enhancing interactions and possible “access,” but you’re exactly right about the broad stroke and popularist rhetoric.

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