Not long after posting yesterday’s entry, a few other thoughts occurred to me on this subject. Partly these thoughts came about because of a thoughtful and sympathetic response by my friend and colleague, Theresa, and partly through the general process of rumination that besets my life.
One important difference between me and Socrates, other than the obvious one of philosophical competence and prominence, is what youth we actually have a chance to corrupt. In ancient Athens, only the male youth of wealth and privilege would have time, or would be encouraged, to pursue philosophy as a student of some great man. Actually, Aristotle remarks that there were a couple of women as students in Plato’s Academy, disguised as males, and the contemporary Plato scholar, Dave Reeve, has written a delightful short dialogue about them, called The Naked Old Women in the Palestra. Good reading. But they were the minuscule exception. It would be a big deal if the upper class youth were corrupted, since they were something like the guardians of tradition for the future. The youth of the tradespeople and slaves had no such role, and may have been deemed already corrupted by the nature of their social standing. The upper class youth were important in Athens, and corrupting them was important. Socrates alludes to this early in the dialogue Euthyphro, when he praises, at least in general terms, the indictment against him filed by Meletus. There, probably sarcastically, he praises Meletus for looking out for “the young shoots” as he calls them, and desiring to protect them from whatever forces of corruption menaced them.
What are the young shoots like I menace in my community college classes? They come from families much like I came from, and many from much more modest circumstances. Middle-to-lower class, some being the first family members to attend college, they are much different from the youths Socrates lollygagged around with in the marketplace. And, reflecting on today’s virulently top-down social and economic system, which also translates into a top-down political system, my students are powerless. Or, at least that’s the way it seems. In talking with them outside of class, few vote, or are inclined to do so. Their aspirations reach no farther, for the most part, than owning a home with a boat on the lake for summer drunkenness. How could they possibly be a threat to the powers vested in our political/economic system as it now operates?
The author (authors?) of Cyborgology, to which I referred yesterday, may have hit upon it. Participation. The current order needs the youth I fail to corrupt adequately to participate in in the sham economy and the sham democracy foisted upon them by our purchased officials and those who profit by the laws they cobble together. And that leads to a point not derived from reading what other have read but thinking about a truly insane phenomenon in contemporary academic life: student debt.
The true crisis that mounting student debt represents is recent, but it has been serious since the Reagan era. While it appears insane to burden citizens with a lifetime of debt for a marginal education, perhaps it does make sense to one segment of the population. If universal higher education has become something mandatory for Americans who have an expectation of success, education has always had its dark side. That’s what the critics of Socrates recognized. Education can put funny ideas into a person’s head. They may begin to question the expectations society has placed upon them if they are to become responsible citizens. They may even begin to question whether there is a god, or that capitalism is the only viable economic system, or that cable TV is the biggest bargain on the face of the earth. How can the cost-benefit ratio be skewed to the greatest benefit to the powers in place with the least cost in terms of risk of non-participation? It’s simple. Force people, through massive indebtedness, to remain anchored to the economic system for most of their productive lives.
The top-down social system of ancient Athens is not much different from contemporary America. The leisure to go to plays and study philosophy was only available to the upper class in that time because of the powerless masses, enslaved in fact or metaphorically, keeping the system producing for the benefit of those at the top. In our time, the lawmakers that continue to reject an increase in the minimum wage are merely guaranteeing the wage slavery of those too powerless to escape. And those who try to escape to the community college where I teach then get thrown back into the same servitude they seek to escape by incurring unconscionable debt. The system thrives for those at the top.
Let me return, finally, to my original question from yesterday: have I corrupted the youth in my time as a philosophy teacher? The answer seems bleaker than ever. What would corrupting them look like from this perspective, rather than the Socratic one? Get off the grid? It would take money. Refuse to get an education? That just trades one form of slavery for another. The system is rigged at the bottom, so maybe accommodating yourself to the system is futile, which only leaves changing the system. Marxian revolution? Never say never. But maybe some sort of grass-roots community like Annabel Park is working to form might be the first step. Socrates approached the task one Athenian at a time. He had no ultimate effect, and was executed for it. Perhaps individualism, the bastion of philosophical thought, must tumble first.