Thamus

You will find in Plato’s Phaedrus a story about Thamus, the king of a great city of Upper Egypt. For people such as ourselves, who are inclined (in Thoreau’s phrase) to be tools of our tools, few legends are more instructive than his. The story Socrates tells it to his friend Phaedrus unfolds in the following way: Thamus once entertained the god Theuth, who was the inventor of many things, including numbers, calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing. Theuth exhibited his inventions to King Thamus, claiming that they should be made widely known and available to Egyptians. Socrates continues:

Thamus inquired into the use of each of them, and as Theuth went through them expressed approval or disapproval, according as he judged Theuth’s claims to be well or ill founded. It would take too long to go through all that Thamus is reported to have said for and against each of Theuth’s inventions. But when it came to writing, Theuth declared, “Here is an accomplishment. my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” To this, Thamus replied, “Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will occur to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

Source:Technopoly by Neil Postman, New York: Vintage Books, 1993, pp3-4.

It is from this quote that I have derived the title of my blog, “Heeding Thamus.” I think we can definitely apply Thamus’ warning to our innovations of today, particularly as it applies to our teaching and our students. Don’t get me wrong, I am an adamant advocate for the use of technology in schools. After all, I would never have got where I am today if it wasn’t for the accessibility of the desktop computer. However, I think it is very easy for us to confuse a “tool for learning” with “learning the tool.” What advice do you have to help us address Thamus’ concern as it relates to technology in the classroom?

5 thoughts on “Thamus

  1. So, I guess the message is, don’t be a tool when it comes to dealing with these tools. 🙂 I think he’s got a good warning. It is so easy to get caught up in enthusiam for a new toy/tool and lose sight of what it is that we should be using the tool for, the real skills and attitudes we’re trying to develop in our students.

  2. Don’t you just love Socrates? The underlying theme is that we are educators and we need to be very cognisant of what we are teaching. I believe we don’t teach how to use tools, we don’t teach curriculum, we teach children. We need to be aware of the skills and knowledge they have and design the learning to meet their needs.

  3. Thanks for sharing a great quote derived from a great story written in a great book.

    With your tacit permit I’m going to shamelessly steal borrow your quote. Thanks.

  4. As educators we must be careful not to throw out tried and true practices, but rather incorporate technology to enhance what we are already doing.

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