May 20, 2017
Faculty greetings from Dr. Christopher Arroyo
Dr. Christopher Arroyo, associate professor of philosophy, is the 2016-17 recipient of the Joseph R. Accinno Teaching Award. He presented this address at the Academic Awards Ceremony on Saturday, May 20, in Peterson Recreation Center.
Father Shanley, Provost Lena, Dean Nowel, award winners, distinguished guests, colleagues, graduating seniors, and the friends and families of the 2017 graduates:
It is a great honor to speak to you today. We are gathered here in order to recognize and celebrate your accomplishments, and I want to do justice to the occasion. But I also want to make the most of my opportunity to speak to you one last time while you are students, to try to impress upon you some of what I think characterizes what we, your professors, are doing (or at least trying to do) at Providence College. And I think that the best way to do that would be to tell you about one of my professors, someone who shaped my life as a teacher, as a philosopher, and as a person.
I earned my Ph.D. from Fordham University, and I had the great fortune of having Dominic Balestra as one of my professors. No one is as in love with philosophy as Dom was. It showed forth in all that he did, especially in his interactions with students. As I struggled to figure out what I want to say today, my thoughts went to Dom. He was a great admirer of the history of Western European philosophy, and one of his favorite works was Plato’s Meno. He often said to us grad students at Fordham: “It’s all in the Meno.”
In the Meno, Plato imagines a conversation between Socrates, his teacher, and Meno, a member of a leading aristocratic family. The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates a question: “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way” (Plato 70a)? Meno, the eager student, wants Socrates to give him the answer to this important question. Socrates, however, claims not to know what virtue is. More provocatively, Socrates claims that he has never met anyone who knows what virtue is. Meno, having studied with one of the leading teachers of the time, volunteers to share what he has learned about virtue. In the exchange that follows, Meno offers a number of definitions of virtue, each of which Socrates questions, and each of which turns out not to be adequate. Eventually, Meno throws his hands up and exclaims, “I have made many speeches about virtue before large audiences on a thousand occasions, very good speeches as I thought, but now I cannot even say what it is” (80b).
It is easy to sympathize with Meno’s frustration: here he was, prepared to give a nice talk on a subject that he purportedly knows well, and with just a few fairly simple questions, Socrates has helped Meno to see that Meno does not actually know what virtue is. Being left speechless in this way, Meno then despairs over the possibility of anyone ever knowing anything. When Socrates insists that he and Meno can investigate virtue together, Meno asks, “How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know” (80d)?
It is tempting, especially for us professors, to think of education to be merely a matter of those with knowledge imparting that knowledge to students. On this view, there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between teachers (the active possessors and guardians of knowledge) and students (the passive, ignorant seekers of knowledge). On this view of learning, teachers essentially stand in positions of power and authority over their students. It is not hard to see why we professors can be drawn to this view of teaching and learning.
Plato and Socrates, however, reject this view of education. For Plato and Socrates, understanding is not something we have, once and for all, as one might have change in one’s pockets. They see understanding as something after which each of us strives and after which we must continue to strive. Genuine education, on this view, is not about the accumulation of information. It is about coming to see the world with a newfound appreciation for what it is and what it can be. They recognized the great richness and complexity of the world and our limited, imperfect grasp of that richness and complexity.
As Plato puts it in another dialogue, “Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes … [on the contrary] the power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and … the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body” (Republic 518b-c).
I think there is some wisdom to be drawn from this view of education, wisdom that may be especially valuable as you prepare to graduate.
Plato and Socrates are showing us that learning — genuine learning — requires humility. When Meno realizes that he doesn’t know what virtue is, he has achieved “Socratic wisdom.” The point of Socratic wisdom is to get us to see that we can learn only when we realize that we have something to learn. And each of us has something to learn, especially (but not only) about those subjects in which we claim to have some expertise.
Plato and Socrates also conceive of teaching and learning as a lifelong communal activity. We can only grow in understanding and come to see the world with a greater, newfound appreciation, if we regularly engage in dialogue with others. We need to submit our beliefs and convictions to scrutiny on a regular basis. Unfortunately, we often are poor judges of ourselves. So, we must rely on others to help us, and we must be willing to help others do the same. In other words, in addition to humility, genuine learning requires generosity of spirit.
Humility and generosity of spirit are so difficult to cultivate, especially when it comes to those with whom we disagree. In our current political climate, this difficulty is even more pronounced. I think, though, that in facing this challenging climate, we members of the Providence College community have an advantage. Dominic Balestra, my teacher at Fordham, was a devout Catholic and champion of Catholic education. I think the Meno resonated so strongly with him because he believed, as I do, that genuine education (such as Plato and Socrates describe) requires love, the kind of love that we find throughout many faith traditions and which is central to Jesus’ invitation to each of us to live in imitation of him. This love animated Dom’s vocation as a teacher and showed forth in his encounters with everyone he met; it is this love that, I think, lies at the heart of our mission as a Catholic institution of higher education; and, most importantly, it is this love that I hope we have shown you in your time at Providence College.
As you celebrate your accomplishments and the end of your time at Providence College, it is my genuine hope that you continue to grow in humility, generosity of spirit, and love.
Plato. 1997. Meno, trans., G.M.A. Grube in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper & D.S. Hutchison, 870-897. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
¯¯¯¯¯¯. 1997. Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube, rev. C.D.C. Reeves in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper & D.S. Hutchison, 971-1223. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.