Education Matters: Socrates could clean up dirty elections

Editor's Note: Numerous instances of plagiarism have been discovered in Dan Kimber’s “Education Matters” column, which ran in the News- Press from September 2003 to September 2011. In those columns where plagiarism has been found, a For the Record specifying the details will be appended to the piece.

I came upon a story that has a moral for all of us, as well as a special application with the approach of local elections. As more and more contests (at all levels of government) are being decided not on an individual’s qualifications but on an opponent’s successful character assassination, it is up to us, we who cast our ballots, to expect/demand better.

The story takes place in ancient Greece where Socrates came upon an acquaintance who ran up to him excitedly and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”

“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me, I'd like you to pass a little test. It's called the Test of Three.”

“Test of Three?”

“That's correct,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my student, let's take a moment to test what you're going to say.

“The first test is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”

“No,” the man replied, “Actually, I just heard about it.”

“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don't really know if it's true or not. Now let's try the second test, the test of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”

“No, on the contrary.”

“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him even though you're not certain it's true?”

The man shrugged, a little embarrassed.

Socrates continued, “You may still pass though because there is a third test — the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”

“No, not really.”

“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?”

The man was defeated and ashamed and said no more.

If only all false rumors could so easily be put to rest. The point is made these days in the run-up to and the aftermath of each election that negative campaigning is what wins elections, and isn’t it just too bad that we Americans are so receptive it?

That’s about as far as it goes in terms of a lesson learned, and with each election cycle we shrug our shoulders after the relentless barrage of half-truths, innuendo and outright lies and figure that that’s just the way it is. If only we the people could turn a deaf ear to this kind of politicking — or better yet, shun it altogether — our candidates might focus more on issues and less on personalities.

But there I go again, venturing a hope that exists in some dream world or parallel universe. In this real world of ours, politics is an ugly, low-down, dirty business that caters more to base instincts than noble aspirations. It places very few demands on voter intellect, in fact insults it with every mailer and public pronouncement that puts image and style over substance.

It turns a grain of truth into the whole truth. It converts a hint of impropriety into an assumption of guilt. It twists a single misspoken word of an opponent and ascribes meaning to it that was never intended, and it has been with us since the founding of our nation.

Thomas Jefferson was the victim of one of America’s earliest “whispering campaigns” in 1800. He was accused of having robbed a widow and her children of a trust fund and because he advocated the separation of church and state, and he was accused of being an atheist. Between then and now a lot of mud has been slung in just about every national election.

I’ve got to believe, though, that most of you reading this would like to see, at least in our local elections, a series of pre-election, face-to-face debates where candidates cannot hide behind campaigns of misinformation and baseless accusation.

Let the office seekers go at it and be sure to invite all detractors and gadflies and local critics to ask the hard questions. Then let our local TV stations and newspapers run and re-run the proceedings.

That may not appeal to people who base their vote on rumors and sound bites and bumper stickers, but haven’t we catered to that element for too long? Perhaps if we can raise our expectations for the general electorate, we might just be rewarded with a higher caliber of leadership.

I think Socrates would have agreed.

DAN KIMBER taught in the Glendale Unified School District for more than 30 years. He may be reached at

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