Ask Me Why: The individual vs. society

Is it more important to be true to yourself or to be a good citizen?

December 11, 2010

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(Photo by Paradigmshifter via Flickr)
Less shouting, more listening.

Ask Me Why is a series of recorded conversations that explore the personal experiences and stories that shape our beliefs. Each story takes a pair of people who disagree on some issue, and asks them to get at the root of why they believe what they believe.

This next installment of Ask Me Why pairs teacher Ruth Martin with her student Charles Glass. Ruth mentors Charles in the Odyssey Project, which offers college level humanities courses to adults.
 
One of the texts they read in this year’s class was Plato’s Apology, which chronicles the trial of Socrates by the Athenians. Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by teaching them radical ideas, like atheism, which Athenian society deemed dangerous. Ultimately Socrates was found guilty and was condemned to death, an outcome Ruth says is hard to see as anything but unjust.
 
That is, she says, until you take into consideration the feelings of the Athenians. If Socrates was imparting ideas or values to these impressionable youth that fell outside the boundaries of what was sanctioned by Athens, how could he be seen as anything but a threat?
 
This conversation around Apology led Ruth and Charles’ class to discuss a question Plato raises in the text: is it more important to be true to oneself or to be a good citizen? In other words, is it better to follow your own moral code, or to conform and contribute to society in the ways it deems fit?
 
In the audio excerpt posted above, Ruth and Charles tackle this question, explaining their perspectives in the context of their personal experiences. Charles has worked in a number of institutions that call for conformity, including the Navy and the criminal justice system, and feels that preserving your individuality and your personal moral code is key. Ruth, on the other hand, grew up in an environment that afforded her every privilege but community, and feels that working for society’s common good is a duty she can’t afford to ignore.
 
Take a listen to their conversation above. If you’re interested in participating in Ask Me Why, you can download the application form here.
 
Ask Me Why is produced in collaboration with the Illinois Humanities Council, and was made possible by a grant from The Boeing Company.