Six-Year-Old Murray Encounters Plato

This is a reflection I shared with my on-line Intro to Philosophy class in the fall of 2014 when we were reading Plato’s Meno.

One of my early childhood memories comes from a time when my father used me in an experiment involving a reenactment of the slave boy episode in the Meno.  I must have been around six or seven years old, and I was quite excited when my father–then an Associate Professor in Philosophy of Education at Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College (where John Dewey had taught)–took me out of school one day and brought me into the city.  (We were living in the NYC suburb of Ridgewood, NJ, at the time; we had, however, lived in New York City previously, and I was quite familiar with Teacher’s College, having been in nursery school there.)

The experiment I was part of was a test of a new “teaching machine”–which consisted of a series of paper notecards that contained questions that were read to the “subject” (i.e. me); like a “choose-your-own-ending” story, the answer one gave to a given question determined which was to be the next question.  The questions, of course, were the same ones Socrates had put to the slave boy, and the experiment was to see if a “machine” could be used to teach the Pythagorean Theorem to someone unfamiliar with geometry.

(This was, after all, in the late 1950s, when even a major university like Columbia didn’t have one of those newly developed “computers.” Logical experiments like the one my father was involved with were, in fact, just developing the sorts of algorithms that IBM eventually used to create the “thinking machine” Big Blue.  In fact, the real topic my father and his colleagues were concerned with was epistemology–investigating the question of how can one be said to have learned something.)

So, the cards were read off, and I answered them as I suppose a six-year-old (or a slave) boy would; in the end I correctly said that if one used the hypotenuse of a square to form a new square, that new square would have twice the area of the original square.

But then came the real, epistemological, test.  After I was finished answering the questions on the card, I was brought into another room where my father and other scary professors sat around a table, and next to me was a slightly older boy (presumably the child of another professor) who had apparently also taken the “teaching machine” test.  The other boy and I were then asked some questions to see if we had really understood the basic principle of the Pythagorean Theorem.  I remember being pretty confused at that point, and apparently the panel of professors determined that, in spite of having been able to pass the “machine’s” test, I had in fact not learned anything!  And to make matters worse, the answers the older boy gave the panel apparently led the professors to think that he did learn something!

I don’t remember anything about our 45-minute ride back to Ridgewood, although I am sure that my father was perfectly fine (although he was not always so, but that is another set of stories!).  I do know that, even to this day, I feel that I had somehow let him down.

Not entirely relevant to the Meno, I know, but I just thought that I would share.