Parke Muth on Socrates and the Rhodes Scholarship

Noodle Expert Parke Muth tells our readers about the usefulness of taking a gap year, why he learns more from traveling then he did in his college coursework, and why he admires Socrates — but only to a point.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

This one is easy, although it is perhaps one that many others would pick, too. I would want to be able to spend time in the agora in Athens talking with Socrates. Socrates laid the foundation for the way we still teach today. And he asked enough tough questions of people in power to earn himself a death sentence. He was devoted to truth and to a systematic and rational approach to questions and answers. His skepticism about what we think we know has been a guide to me throughout my life. Socrates cared about all the big issues: justice, ethics, virtue, education etc. He set out to find, if not answers, then the questions that would help keep us from assuming we know more than we do.

And yet, at the same time, I disagree with him on many issues. He defends lying to the people in order to keep the philosopher-kings in power, he believes in the fixed and perfect nature of the ideal, and he assumes that he is far different from the sophists, who populated the agora with him 2,500 years ago. I would want to question him about all these things and would want him to question me so that I could get to the core of my beliefs, too. (There is a wonderful book, "Plato at the Googleplex," written by the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, in which Plato is still alive and well in modern America. If this version of Plato were still alive, then he would be my second choice — this Plato knows about the Internet, Google, cognitive neuroscience, and much more. And he has lots to say on issues facing us today.)

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

"One day at a time” has helped me put things into focus. It’s not quite as dramatic as the Latin version, carpe diem, that Robin Williams so famously shouted in “Dead Poet’s Society” and that may be why I like it. It isn’t an order for me to carry out, but rather something I can take in and then try to live by. The idea of taking things one day at a time also has branches that reach out to mindfulness, too, in that it allows me to narrow the horizons of past and future. It also encourages me focus on what we really have in the end — the day we are living.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

The first thing I would want to do is to talk to the student for at least an hour or two. I would want to find out whether she has studied a language in any depth, as this would affect my suggestion. That much is pretty straightforward, but after that I would want to get more information about her interests and passions. I am not just talking about academics, but also what she likes to do outside of class and school, and what she cares about in terms of world issues and service toward others. Finally, I would try to get a sense of the student’s personality. Is she outgoing, or reserved and shy? Is the student doing this because she initiated it out of a specific interest, or is it something that has been suggested to the student by others?

Once I had at least a general introduction I would make suggestions. It might be that the student has a working knowledge of Spanish. I would then encourage the student to think about a program that includes a homestay. Being dropped in a house in which Spanish is spoken 24/7 is the best way to become fluent. This will present many challenges, so I might not choose this if I knew the student were somewhat shy and kept to herself. She might retreat rather than forcing herself to talk.

In other words, there is no simple template for international travel. I would also like to put forward a suggestion to do something that I think far more students should experience: a gap year. Both professionally and personally I have seen the ways in which a gap year gives students a broader perspective of the world and themselves. In fact, I was recently interviewed in the Washington Post on the topic of gap years.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I have not reached a number of goals I have set for myself. At the time I may have felt these were failures, but not winning turns out to be different from failing. If I had to pick one thing, it would be when I was selected as a semifinalist for a Rhodes scholarship. I went into the interview thinking I had just about everything they could possibly ask for, but the interview did not go all that well. I learned then that I should have reached out to mentors and others who had been through the process to help me prepare. Since that time, I've encouraged others to find mentors at virtually every stage of life. Seeking out the wisdom of others has been one of the best things I discovered at a relatively young age.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

Education is transformative. I have been incredibly lucky: I've taken great classes with some of the best professors in the world, I've taught excellent students, and have traveled the world visiting schools and talking with educators, families, and students. What I discovered along the way is that I learned far more from personal conversations than I did in most of those great classes I was in. I feel in some way like I should be paying tuition, as I get a global education each day. In working with students from around the world who are bright and motivated, I receive a gift that I am not sure has any price. These students inspire me, motivate me, and teach me.

Article Topics: