As another academic year draws to a close, the usual hopeful message that the new generation can and will change the world plays in counterpoint to general criticism of youths disinterested in learning and disengaged from society.
Like the undead, students drift through the halls of academe: no eye contact, twitching fingers, antisocial isolation. We see them as lost in dehumanizing technology. That is, when we ourselves look up from e-mail, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
There is no question that contemporary culture and technology rot students' minds and beguile their souls. But it's always been that way. Boomers, remember how our parents despaired of TV and psychedelic music?
Still, grads can be sent into the world intellectually and interpersonally prepared.
The challenge is to get them up off their apps. We must inspire them to examine themselves and argue their ideas. That's how one refines the intellect and conscience. Certainly, this is a deeper pedagogical challenge than imparting information so students will pass an exam. To do this harder work, a professor has to understand young people and how they learn and what they value. That understanding is the beginning of teaching.
The Socratic method is still worth professors' attention. Socrates met Phaedrus, a promising young man in love with the mind-numbing technology of his age, where he lived. The Greek philosopher thought the latest technology - writing - would rot the brains of the young, making them clueless, lazy. They would lack both information and the capacity for critical thought and be rendered incapable of moral judgment. Sound familiar?
Yet Socrates helped Phaedrus appreciate more profound and virtuous methods of communication, both with his own soul and with the souls of others. My students never fail to note that Socrates offers this critique on writing within a piece of writing by Plato. We find that this new technology is corrupting only if it is allowed to reduce the student to the passive posture of a consumer.
Teaching rhetoric in a university honors program, I require a lot from my students, demanding that they think and communicate clearly. They actually don togas and recite Plato's Phaedrus in the middle of campus with hundreds of onlookers.
My students overcome their trembling limbs and adrenal overload. Many today are doctors, lawyers, educators, managers, editors, and nonprofit leaders. When I see them at reunions, they strike me as articulate, humane, and conscientious. And they thank me for having pulled them from their comfort zone, because, they have found, that is what the world does.
The shortcomings we find in our youths in 2014 are not very different than those cited at any period in history. A bit more than a quarter-century ago, Alan Bloom wrote Closing of the American Mind, that generation's obituary on education and youth.
But books and studies that predict the demise of the mind and the academy always miss the point Plato makes so persuasively - the ills of the day are best trumped by education that develops both mind and soul.
My students seem to get Plato. At a reunion recently, I listened to a seasoned physician and a pre-med student agree that less broadly educated colleagues, though always skilled technicians, sometimes lack the ability to communicate with patients and therefore are less effective in diagnosis and treatment.
The Greek philosopher argued that the goal of education is to understand students' souls, gifts, capacities, and mastery of the material, and then lead them forward from that point. The real goal, of course, is to restore their humanity.