by Stephen Sagarin, 10th grade advisor – 09 Mar 2004
Teaching ancient history to the Tenth Grade followed immediately by Modern History to the Ninth Grade, I was struck as I have not been in the past by the recurrence of dialectics in history. Perfected by Socrates as the true ìSocratic methodî (not simply asking questions, which can be as tedious as any other teacher-centered form of education), dialectics is a striving toward truth in conversation. The ìconversationî may be a friendly discussion, an argument, or a war. It may involve one personóThomas Aquinas studying alone in a room, positing imagined responses to statements or questions. It may involve two peopleóSocrates and Glaucon discussing education in the Republic. Or it may involve a nation divided against itselfóadvocates of slavery at war with opponents of slavery in the newspapers, the courts, and the battlefield. Dialectic begins with a statement, a thesis. Luther wrote 95 theses, in Latin, to provoke conversation among his colleagues at the University of Wittenberg; these were translated into vernacular German by an unknown person, kicking the Protestant Reformation outside university walls. Dialectic continues with an antithesis, an apparent contradiction of the thesis. It proceeds until a new statement, a synthesis, arises. This synthesis becomes a new thesis, enters a new dialectic, and the conversation continues.
In Karl Marxís dialectical materialism there is a lifeless assumption of inevitability; history proceeds like a chemistry experiment through to equilibriumóthe dictatorship of the proletariat. But true dialectics involve contingencies, points of view, modes of expression, accidents, coincidences, unintended consequences, and differences of interpretation. These inevitably lead to living conversation and novelty. They allow for change, innovation, and inspiration. Looking back, the past can rush toward our present with the apparent force of an avalanche. But, despite all our knowledge and learning, who in 1988 could have predicted, and on what evidence, the fall of the Berlin Wall the next year, and the death of soviet socialism soon after? Living in the conversation of the present, we must know that we provide the possibility for the future to be what we imagine it can be. As Joseph Wiezenbaum of MIT says, ìwe must live as if the future of the world depends on us. To do less is to abdicate responsibility for our actions.