Measuring a Teacher


Have you ever argued for your best teacher?  “Mr. A was the best!”  and your friend says “Oh yeah!  And in college I remember Ms. B teaching me the most.”

Perhaps you may have debated who was greatest among classic philosophers: Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle?

It’s a fun debate, and I’ve revealed my choice earlier.  But here, I can provide us with an objective measure that we should all be able to accept.  It has some shortcomings, but every measure has benefits and drawbacks.

The greatness of a teacher should be measured by how many subsequent teachers they create.

You see, it’s not necessarily important that they teach something totally awesome, although it doesn’t hurt.  It’s not even important that we be able to understand what it is they did.

With respect to philosophy, Socrates taught Plato.

Plato taught Aristotle.

Aristotle taught, hmmm, who did Aristotle teach?  I heard that he taught Alexander the great, but Alex wasn’t exactly known for being a good teacher.  He was more of a doer.

There we have it for philosophy.  So Socrates is the greatest teacher among them.  We can debate which of them had the “best” philosophy [1] but that’s for another day.

How about something like physics?  Archimedes is easily the first in this category, both theoretical and experimental, but we don’t know if he left any teachers behind.  Tycho Brahe was a polymath that included physics, he taught Kepler, and Kepler taught Newton.  Who did Newton teach?  No one directly, as far as I know.  He did teach many indirectly, but I’m not counting that.

Einstein is one of those people who learned from Newton, Faraday, and many others.  But did he teach anyone?  Not sure.

So, are Archimedes, Newton, and Einstein still great scientists?  Of course.  But were they great teachers?

My measure says no.  Is that worth anything?

Now that is something we should discuss another day.

[1] Socrates, with Plato being a close second.  Archie was a hack who sold out for celebrity.


Ms. Socrates

The last time I mentioned Socrates, I was applying for his job.  In my humble opinion, Socrates was the greatest teacher the world has ever seen.  His philosophy was fairly good, and still works for the most part.  The fact that he also showed us how to use logical reasoning properly, laying the groundwork of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution wasn’t bad either.  Overall, not a bad looking resume.

The fact is, very few great men could be as great as they were if it weren’t for help from others.  Their parents for one thing.  Perhaps the most understated assistant to history’s greatest names are the spouse.  Who cleaned up after Pasteur?  His wife.  Who kept Einstein happy when he was a struggling clerk?  His wife.  First wife.

Which brings us back to Socrates.  He was married.  Had two kids.  But I’m guessing that his family didn’t really have an interest in his work.  After all, what wife or teenagers want their very foundations of reality shaken?

Especially wives.  Telling a spouse that they do something wrong, whether it’s big or small, is not great marriage advice.  Please don’t rinse the dishes BEFORE you put them in the washer.  Why do you leave water in the saucepan?  Put the jam in the SAME place in the fridge each time so I don’t have to search every time.

On the other hand, Ms. Socrates had to work hard so that Socrates could spend quality time with his students.  If she’d been less supportive, Socrates may have spent more time fishing, or practicing some kind of paying trade so that her kids had more toys.

Instead, she worked hard with less.  She made sure her kids were loved and nurtured enough even though their father was busy with things they didn’t understand.

I’m thinking this may be important because, if I ever do get the job of Socrates 2, then my best friend / wife could feel the same way.  I’m pretty sure she’d be the perfect helpmate.  She may not really care about these things, she certainly doesn’t like being challenged, and I learned long ago to never complain about how she does things.  Certainly makes being married that much easier.

But frankly, I don’t think I could do the job without her.  Don’t think I’d want to.  After all, all this work is designed to try and save the world.  But if she’s not in it, the world may simply not be worth it any more.

So, hats off to all you supportive spouses.  And a tip of my toga to Ms. Socrates.  Thank you for helping us all out.



Socrates’s Mistake

How do I dare say this about the greatest teacher who ever lived?

I wouldn’t have applied for the job of Socrates, Two, if he hadn’t overlooked this subject.

In his defense, he didn’t so much as overlook it as have a much larger issue to deal with first: teaching us how to learn about the natural world.  The Golden age of Greece had great insights, but they weren’t insightful enough to invent and use engines, electricity, and airplanes.

Socrates gave us the tools necessary to learn about the natural world.  That learning gave us the tools needed to start the scientific and industrial revolutions.  Those revolutions gave us engines, electricity, and airplanes.  That’s how deep his teaching went.  Not bad.

The problem he avoided was behavior.  Socrates left it off the table.  By doing that, he was implicitly teaching that our behavior was something beyond nature, something we couldn’t study using the tools of logic and measurement.

Bull s***.

You heard it right.  I who never swear said this in the strongest, most emphatic terms I can imagine.

Behavior is natural.  We have tools to study natural phenomena.  If we don’t study behavior, humanity is doomed.  And here is the final shocker.

Socrates knew this.

He had many things to teach.  A good teacher only teaches one thing at a time.  A good teacher only teaches as fast as his students can absorb that knowledge.  Socrates was a good teacher.

Socrates knew his students believed in Gods.  He knew society was very protective of their gods.  And the gods were a very popular cause of behavior.  Much craziness was sourced directly to those denizens of Olympus.

If Socrates interfered with the gods, it meant he couldn’t teach them about the rest of the natural world.  So he stayed away from behavior.

Socrates knew that a true study of behavior as a property of nature would also mean denial of gods, any gods.  He also knew his students weren’t ready for that.

Most modern people still aren’t ready.  Here we are, almost 2500 years later and it’s hard to go anywhere in this world without bumping into someone’s god.

That was Socrates’s mistake, an intentional one.  For if we are to truly study behavior in a scientific manner, we must consider ourselves part of the natural world.  We must deny the supernatural in all its forms.

After all, if there are deities that control everything including our fates, then what’s the point?

Putting it another way: You got God?  Party time!


Socrates, 2

I angered my friend by asking questions, too too many questions.

Most people don’t like that.

Most people are done learning early in life.  Some are done by the time they’re teenagers.  Some wait until they’ve finished school.  Others will fade as their hair changes color.

A few never stop.

Socrates never stopped.

He was going full tilt all the way to the end.  He was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens almost 2500 years ago.  He insisted on a trial, was convicted of sedition and sentenced to death at the age of 60.

His legacy was his students; and they had his methods, his conclusions, and most importantly, his enthusiasm for questions.

Today we live in a larger world by every possible measure.  Socrates would have marveled at the size, power, and speed of everything we take for granted.  Yet his questions are as powerful today as they were then.

In fact, they are more powerful.  For one important feature we have today that Socrates didn’t have then; information about how people behave in great detail.  We have access to thoughts, desires, and choices far beyond the simple toga-toting times of Athens.

It’s time for the sequel to Socrates.  In this day and age we are used to sequels, and even sequels of sequels.  Why not a sequel to the greatest teacher who ever lived?

I’m applying for the job.

I’ve got lots of questions, a good handle on the use of logical reasoning, and a fairly open set of assumptions and biases.

Additionally, I’m familiar with many of the modern disciplines, scientific methodology, and many of the technical tools available.

There it is, friends.  I am applying for the position of Socrates, too.  The sequel.

I’m affordable, work from home, require little supervision, and have a fairly decent sense of humor.

I’m also open to shortening the job title a tad.

How about,



Challenges of Socrates

I angered my best friend today by suggesting a better way to take a picture.  In all fairness, it would have been a gorgeous picture of a dandelion ball covered in delicate frost, with a fiery orange maple tree as the background.

Instead of a picture, I got an earful.  She said:

“You’re constantly challenging me, and it’s tiring.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.”

Ouch.  That really hurt.  I didn’t realize it, and I certainly don’t want to anger her, or you.

I started to ask: what do you mean by constant?  who others?

But she instantly corrected me by explaining questions are challenges.

Now I’m crushed.  It’s been hours since the frosty ball-of-fluff incident, and I’m crushed.

What’s worst is the very essence of my being is what she finds annoying.  I’m not worried about our relationship, there’s plenty more for us to base that upon, but it does mean;

No more questions.

Which brings us to the reason for today’s post, and the purpose of this site.

It’s all about questions.   Asking questions is the very essence of learning.  If my friend finds me annoying, what do my other friends, relations, and even YOU think?

Perhaps all of them, and you, are also annoyed.

For that I’m a little sorry.  Sorry because I would rather intrigue and please you so that you would press on and think these questions through on your own.  Also sorry because the alternative means we won’t learn, and future history will be the same as past history.

Which brings us to Socrates.

He lives about 2500 years ago, and was the greatest teacher in history.

How great was he?  His teachings created philosophical schools that have lasted up to today.  Second, he was able to teach using questions, allowing the student to reach the proper conclusion based on their own current knowledge.  Third, his teachings about objective definitions and the use of logic eventually led to the Renaissance; the scientific and industrial revolutions.

It’s quite possible that if it weren’t for Socrates we’d still be living in the Dark Ages, fighting Holy Wars, and travel around the world using nothing but wind-powered ships.

It took 2000 years for that message to get through.  All because he wasn’t afraid to challenge his students.