Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Who is Protagoras?

Back to ancient Greece again.

Protagoras was a sophist who lived around the same time as Socrates. Essentially he disagreed with the Socratic notion that there are 'forms' that exist outside ourselves, such as virtue and justice, and it is the goal of the philosopher to teach people the 'external' logic behind these forms. There is a much quoted analogy from these Socratic dialogues of man in a dark cave, dimly lit by the light of truth coming in the entrance a long way away.

Protagoras did not take this line. He believed that 'man is the measure of all things'. He did not believe in God, and he did not believe that there were forms that we have to discover the truth behind. What is true for one person is absolutely true for them; some people espouse statements/truths of little gravitas, but still phenomenologically true for them, and it is the job of the philosopher (or sophist) to teach people how to discriminate.

This little story is profound for me. Socrates' rather conservative approach of 'only the philosophers can teach you how to discover the truth (through absolute logic and mathematics)' next to 'the truth is relative' to individuals, and presumably societies. I follow on from Protagoras by claiming that truth is a participatory activity; we should not have to rely on Socrates or his conservative cronies to teach us things anymore.

This strikes to the core of this blog; on one hand, Protagoras' relativism shouldn't be taken to absolute solopcism, many truths are universally agreed, and it is the job of the educator to create knowledge from these truths. Content is important. Especially in subjects like medicine, or more broadly in the sciences. Much useful education is the activity of exposing people to content. Philosophy is not everything.

So I meant to write a blog about where I have come from in terms of my thinking on technology in education in the 21st century, and I have ended up back in ancient Greece. Who said all Western Philosophy is really just a series of footnotes to Plato (i.e. Socratic dialogues)?

So this is me. I started out designing learning objects, content for HE healthcare courses. I got quite good at visualising content. I spent a lot of time examining the same information in the books and realised that information has to be interactive, responsive, visual if possible to release its full educational potential.

Being Socratic now, I thought these learning objects should be free for everyone's benefit, not just as a means to a qualification. This is information that we as a world need to be free and available. So that's 'it' then. Content is the most important thing, yeah? Being able to interact with it, cool. Just get it out there..

And this is where it gets difficult, or possibly not. But certainly more tricky. Because now we are in the realms of what is useful content, what is agreed truths, how certain people may read certain things, what people can 'do' with the content - a host of problems that look like they need human intervention. so this has taught us something. technology can only go so far... we need to engage people in the learning process to make information socially worthwhile, if we can agree as a society what 'worthwhile' means...

and now i'm not sure if i am socrates or protagoras...

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