Nabokov Studies 9.1 (2005) 209-215
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The Student's Nabokov
About a dozen years after the death of Socrates, Plato returned from an unprofitable visit to the court of Syracuse and opened a school on the outskirts of Athens, in a grove sacred to the hero Hecademus. Of the late and unreliable reports that have come down to us, some depict the early Academy as much of a piece with the lampoon of Socrates' Phrontesterion—the Thinkery—in Aristophanes' Clouds, with Plato doggedly trying to get his students to identify the pumpkin's species while a visiting doctor calls them all a pack of lunatics. Others portray Plato as a less than compelling teacher; at the end of his lecture on the soul, he finds that his entire audience, except for the stalwart Aristotle, has melted away. Such anecdotes are the result of factionalism and a vigorous streak of anti-intellectualism in Greek culture, nothing more. Scholars who wish to reconstruct the teachings of Plato's Academy must work instead from scant and fragmentary evidence, and they have not met with any notable success. Indeed, one leading school of thought holds that what Plato taught his students has not been recovered for the simple reason that is was never meant to be recovered or made accessible to anyone outside of the Academy: it was esoteric knowledge, as opposed to the exoteric knowledge presented in the dialogues. The reader will recall Plato's remark (in the Phaedrus) that [End Page 209] writing cannot express the truth. It is logical enough, then, to suppose that the more advanced Platonic teachings were passed on orally and not in written form, and that attendance at the Academy was the only means of receiving them. In short, you had to be there.
Parents who shell out annually a sum equivalent to a small Mercedes-Benz in order to send their offspring to college presumably subscribe to a similar notion, namely that there is something to be gotten from the classroom experience, from the interaction of pupil and teacher, that cannot be gotten from, say, simply locking the bairns in a good library along with a notebook and a bag of breadcrumbs. The problem is that students so seldom find time for the classroom experience. Or if they do somehow manage to make it to the occasional lecture, that leaves them all the less time for doing research and writing papers, occupied as they are with their daily consumption of ten gallons of water (sucked from the omnipresent plastic bottle-and-straw contraption) and the physiological sequelae that necessarily follow. My editing work often takes me into college and university libraries, and what I find there is that although the restrooms and e-mail terminals may receive heavy use, the stacks are delightfully empty, with every book (that is, every book of any scholarly merit) neatly in place, as if in some episode of The Twilight Zone. Clearly the student has found better things to do with his time.
It was ever thus, and since the days of the Ilias Latina (a low-rent paraphrase of Homer), a small industry has arisen for the purpose of providing shortcuts up Parnassus. The fraternity house of legend, with its files of recycled essays for every course, has evolved into the online term-paper merchant and the host of free...