Published Humanitas, Volume VII, No. 1, 1994

Plato’s Meno starts with a barrage of outrageous questions put to Socrates by the brash and impatient young man for whom the dialogue is named: “Can you tell me, Socrates, is human excellence (areté) something teachable? Or, if not teachable, is it something to be acquired by training? Or, if it cannot be acquired either by training or by teaching, does it accrue to me at birth or in some other way?” As we might predict, Socrates tosses the questions back to Meno instead of trying to answer any of them. Then, in his own meandering way, Socrates follows Meno to the rather tentative conclusion that if we could find teachers of “human excellence,” or virtue, we might be able to teach it, but, as we cannot find teachers, virtue cannot be taught.

All of this seems to have been lost on those who insist these days that our educational institutions teach virtue—whether or not we can find anyone capable of teaching it. In this regard, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, formerly president of the University of Notre Dame, made an uncharacteristically foolish comment during the Watergate scandal some years ago. Noting that the men who committed the Watergate break-in were lawyers and therefore (presumably) educated men, he suggested that this incident exposed the basic failure of our educational system. That is to say, our educational systems have failed because they did not succeed in teaching these particular burglars to be virtuous. The irony of this comment…

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