42. Education and Discovery, Part 1

Anyone who studies the philosophy of education will quickly discover that there are two central models of how knowledge comes to be acquired: on one hand, we have an ignorant and passive pupil who receives information from an active and knowledgeable teacher; on the other hand, we have a interactive model whereby both the pupil and the teacher engage in shared inquiry which leads to new discoveries. The latter model has become famous through the writings and deeds of two famous philosophers: Socrates (470-399) and John Dewey (1859-1952).  In the next few posts I will: (1) delineate the key aspects of Socratic and Deweyan pedagogy; (2) clarify their major differences and similarities; and (3) justify their interactive natures by showing how they afford opportunities for individual and political growth that non-interactive models can’t provide.  Ultimately, we will see that Socrates and Dewey, despite their differences, leave us a legacy that is still relevant and inspiring.

Socrates was the wisest man in Athens because, paradoxically, he knew that he knew nothing.  So why is Socrates so famous for being an educator?  The answer is simple: Socrates doesn’t give people information; rather, he employs a certain method that (1) brings forth an awareness of ignorance by removing people’s pretensions to know; and (2) enables people to discover truth within themselves in order to develop a virtuous soul. Like a barren midwife, Socrates is devoid of ideas but can help those who are pregnant give birth safely and soundly. In Plato’s dialogues the steps of the so-called Socratic method are dramatically portrayed with a great deal of subtlety.  Nonetheless, the basic steps are clear enough:

1) Socrates meets someone and begins a conversation.  Within almost no time Socrates steers the conversation into philosophical territory, that is, a territory where general and fundamental questions are raised.

2) Socrates then isolates a central term in the discussion and asks for a definition.  He usually asks the question “What is x” where x is a general term like justice, virtue, friendship, love, etc.

3) Socrates claims he is ignorant and needs the help of his dialogue companion.  This move typically has the effect of making the person over confident and eager to demonstrate how wise he is.

4) Socrates shows his gratitude for the definition but mentions that one or two things need to be clarified.  This then leads to a realization that the definition at hand has implications that are inconsistent, contradictory, or incoherent.

5) Usually Socrates’ companion provides a revision that, in turn, is shown to be inadequate as well.

6) Steps 4 and 5 are repeated a few times and then the subject ends up leaving in anger or, if the subject can face his ignorance and commit to learning, there may be a promise to meet another day to continue the conversation.[1]

Now a few things are crucial to understand:

  • The Socratic method is not about an active, knowledgeable authority transferring information to a passive person who doesn’t know; rather, it is a technique of shared inquiry into the unknown whereby all people involved may discover something that they already have within themselves: education is not, as Socrates tells us in book VII of The Republic, like putting sight into blind eyes.
  • People’s desire to maintain an image of themselves as wise often prevents the successful application of the method.  Rather than drop their pretensions and embark on a shared inquiry, many people would rather go on appearing to be wise instead of being wise.  After all, our need for security runs deep and philosophical perplexity makes us insecure.
  • If Socrates is wise then wisdom, so it would seem, can emerge from the process of shared inquiry itself; we become wise insofar as we face our ignorance and, with courage, embark together on journeys of discovery.

So the legacy of Socrates is really a method of anti-authoritative shared inquiry.  Of course, Socrates is an authority when it comes to the process of questioning and helping people discover what lies within.  But he is not an authority in the sense that he doesn’t implant information into a passive pupil who, like a wax tablet, comes to merely represent, to some degree of accuracy, the information.  Everyone in a Socratic discussion gets involved, contributes, and, if they are honest, faces perplexity.  Perplexity is the first step to learning – a step not easily taken by many.  But the rewards for persisting in the face of perplexity are wisdom and the discoveries that emerge from the examined life. In the next post I will look at John Dewey’s view of education.

[1] This overview of the steps was paraphrased from William Lawhead’s helpful account in his book Voyage of Discovery: Ancient Voyage (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002), p. 43.

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