The Platonic Ideal of Perfection

A philosophy professor at McGill University requires a perfect score to continue class on Plato -- and students complain. Prisoners chained in a cave?
September 19, 2007

Alison Laywine didn't expect students to react any differently to the syllabus for her Plato course than for any other standard philosophy department offering.

The course, which at times refers directly to original texts, requires students to gain a familiarity with the Greek alphabet. To make sure that would happen, Laywine tested them on the subject last week -- with the requirement that anyone getting less than 100 percent correct would have to drop the class.

To be sure, the exam was given during the add/drop period, no knowledge of Greek was presumed and Laywine spent the first two weeks of class teaching the alphabet. But nervous students evidently spread the word: An article in the McGill University student newspaper this week described declining enrollment and fear in the classroom. "I dropped the class because the syllabus terrified me," one student told the paper.

The requirement is certainly not the norm in a typical classroom, but Laywine said she has had at least one colleague use the same policy. "I was surprised by the reaction," she said. "I really think our students overreacted."

One reason why the response was so unexpected, she suggested, is that learning the Greek alphabet (or at least the capital letters) isn't all that hard. "It’s something you can learn in a day," said Daniel P. Tompkins, a professor of classics at Temple University and a member of the Joint Committee on Classics in American Education of the American Classical League and the American Philosophical Association.

Laywine didn't want to teach the class without being certain her students could interpret parts of the original texts. "[I]f I put a word that’s up for discussion on the blackboard, do you really know what we’re talking about? You’ve got to be able to read the words on the blackboard; that’s a minimal requirement," she said. "It’s a lot easier to do than to make sense of Plato."

As an introduction to Plato and the Greek language, Laywine said she hoped that the test would cause some students to take an interest in the subjects -- not scare them off: "My rationale is, in part, that I want to confront students with the fact these texts are in Greek. We have to talk about the terms themselves anyway; let’s put them on the board and see what they look like in Greek."

In requiring a perfect score on the Greek alphabet, and students' ability to transliterate into English, Laywine said she didn't want to give the impression that she believes memorization to be the core of a student's education in the classics. It "didn’t mean that I thought any part of philosophy should be strictly rote learning ... but you do have to be able to remember stuff," she pointed out, such as the contours of an argument in order to be able to discuss it intelligently.

"My father, when he went to school, had to memorize certain lines of poetry.... [M]y students have never been asked to memorize anything. Is that good or bad?" she asked. "My own view is that the stronger your memory is, the better off you’ll be."

"So memory’s got to play some role in how we learn, but it’s obviously not the only thing," Laywine added.

If the role of memorization in the classroom has waned in recent decades, Kenneth Kitchell, a professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, noted that the trend is part of a more complex pattern.

"Rote memorization, when I was coming up the pike, was absolutely part of the mental regimen ... but that’s been argued, since I think Revolutionary War days, whether it’s useful or not; it kind of comes and goes," said Kitchell, a past president of the American Classical League who has studied the history of Latin education.

Even if memorization -- or the specter of being tested to perfection from memory -- awakened some students' fears, that wasn't necessarily the cause of the drop in enrollment since the beginning of the semester, documented by The McGill Daily as declining from 50 to about 34 at the beginning of the week. Laywine said, however, that the same drop occurred last year, to 33 from 50, without the alphabet quiz. By her count, the number of students currently stands at 32 -- just right for a classroom discussion.


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