Malcolm Sharp…was also a master of the Socratic method of learning.
Toward the end of my “career” as a parasite living on the backs of the hapless taxpayer of the Lone Star Republic, I mentioned to some of my fellow parasites (faculty members) that I used the “Socratic” method. They looked at me like they had never heard of Socrates and they probably hadn’t. But on the other hand, it could have been because teaching people how to think instead of what to think was never a part of their plan. Actually, it is more than that. The state does not want people to know how to think and actively tries to prevent it. Thank God for tenure or many of us would not have survived as long as we did. — jtl, 419
Never let school interfere with your education. ~ Mark Twain
There is an old joke about how knowledge accumulates in universities: students enter college, knowing everything, and graduate knowing nothing. In this way does knowledge continue to grow within universities. My years of experience in what is referred to as “higher education” inform me that there is more than sophomoric humor in this description.
As I have recently written, my all-time favorite teacher and professor of anything was Malcolm Sharp, with whom I studied at the University of Chicago Law School. Malcolm was straight out of central-casting as a loving grandfather type, he was also a master of the Socratic method of learning. It was through the processes of continued inquiry, the refinement of one’s questions, that his students began to experience the understanding that answers do not provide. Only discovering how to go deeper and deeper into the asking of questions does understanding arise. This is why learning how to think has far greater significance for one’s life than learning what to think.
Ask yourself whether, at any stage in your formalized education, you were encouraged to think outside the boundaries of the assigned curriculum. Were the institutional keepers of the questions you were expected to pursue tolerant of any independent inquiries you might undertake? Might continued efforts to pursue your own agenda of discovery land you in the principal’s office or, worse, subject you to behavior-modifying drugs or other treatment? At what point – if at all – did it become evident to you that the system of formal education to which you had been sentenced had, as its purpose, the turning of you and your fellow inmates into well-conditioned servo-mechanisms whose energies were to be devoted to fostering institutional interests?
I have long been of the view that the earlier children are able to experience a free and unstructured environment for learning, the greater the likelihood they will carry an epistemological independence with them. Having experienced the joy and energy that accompanies an unfettered exploration of one’s world makes a child less vulnerable to the people-pushers who see him or her only as “resources” to be exploited.
Our prior learning has the dual nature of both informing and constraining our inquiries. Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” reminds us that the observer is the observed; that what we see is filtered through the lenses of what we have seen previously; that our prior experiences provide the categories and other concepts with which we define the present. This is why – contrary to the faith of the Objectivists – we can never be certain that what we know and observe comports with “reality.” That our learning may, in fact, be identical with “reality” does not overcome the inherent and inevitable character of the subjective nature of what we know. Such an awareness compels us to refine the Cartesian proposition “I think, therefore I am,” into “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am.”
By definition, we are unable to contrast how much we know about the universe with what is possible to know. I shall nonetheless offer this analogy: imagine that what you and I know – or think we know – about the universe is contained within a child’s marble. Then imagine this marble situated in the state of California. Believing in the sufficiency of our experiences within the marble, we presume that the rest of the universe operates on the same principles and dynamics as those with which we are familiar. Why do we do this? Whether one subscribes to the “Book of Genesis” or the “Big Bang” explanation for the origins of the universe, there is an underlying assumption that “existence” must have some identifiable point of beginning. Upon what do we rely for this presumption? Is it not evident that both hypotheses are drawn from our prior – and very limited – learning; that “reality” may exhibit itself in causal patterns that we cannot even imagine could exist?
The institutional establishment finds it essential to its interests to keep our knowledge of reality confined to within the boundaries of the marble it controls. To this end, the educational system is charged with the task of conditioning the minds of people to learn what is serviceable to members of the prevailing order. Students – whether they be children or adults – are provided with a great deal of knowledge, generally in the form of information, skills, doctrines, or other lore that can be utilized on behalf of institutional purposes. Learning that is not so useful tends to be treated, at best, as a form of entropy (i.e., energy unavailable for productive work) or, at worst, disruptive of established ends. Learning that fosters a deeper, institutional purposeless – or, worse yet, threatening – understanding is to be discouraged.
Most schools operate as little more than robot factories, training students to provide answers to the limited range of questions that prepare young minds to perform their roles as institutional automatons. The questions that students are permitted to ask are largely confined to enhancing performance in their assigned functions, but never to ask why they are robots!
When the County of Los Angeles published a pamphlet stating that children must be taught “that we are all part of one big social system,” and “must learn how to participate effectively” within that system, it confirmed Ivan Illich’s observation that “once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction, they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort.” Another government school system informs us that those who resist such conditioning are to be fed into the “juvenile delinquency” system “to correct the pupils’ maladjustments.”
The idea of a coercively-enforced system of learning is so contrary to the self-interest-driven nature of life that many students seek to avoid it, whether by physically dropping out of school (that horrible crime known as “truancy”), or just not doing the assigned work, or otherwise pursuing one’s own agenda rather than that of the teacher. Whatever alternative the student pursues, the more independent student is labeled as suffering from “attention-deficit disorder” (i.e., the unwillingness to remain bored by the prescribed curricula and the teacher’s rote methods of teaching subjects of little interest to intelligent minds). For the more grievous offenders, the state’s criminal-law system (i.e., juvenile courts) await. In the interim, students may find themselves subjected to Big-Pharma’s collection of “behavior-modification” drugs in order “to correct the pupils’ maladjustments.” The connection that has been made between prescribed psychotropic drugs and school-shootings has been conveniently ignored by most establishment voices. Those who prefer to look for causal explanations in guns would do well to ask themselves why so many of these mass-killings take place at government schools!
The state continues its systematic corruption of our natural disposition for learning, insisting upon its agenda for conditioning minds into becoming institutional servo-mechanisms. The established order – consisting of political systems, major corporations, the mainstream media, organized religions, schools, and academia – has long been at war with the kind of learning that generates understanding rather than obedience, a battle that is, once again, being waged against the technology (e.g., Internet) that puts learning back into the hands of individuals.
Answers tend to short-circuit the processes by which minds dig deeper in search of the refinement of questions that foster understanding. But in our modern world, schools are not engaged in helping students learn how to clarify the quality of their inquiries, or to help them discover deeper, inner meanings to their lives. Most schools are in the certification business, attesting to the next level of institutional interests the qualifications of their graduates. High schools certify students to colleges; colleges certify their alums to either corporate employers or to graduate schools; professional graduate schools (e.g., medicine, law) certify students to state licensing agencies; while licensing boards certify these would-be practitioners to the public.
In the course of this institution-serving system of training, young minds must be inoculated against exposure to ideas that engender the kinds of inquiries, speculations, and discoveries that tend to a more individualized sense of being and purpose in life. Therein lies the breeding ground for understanding, and it is such existential awareness that must be kept out of the human psyche. Like black holes – whose gravitational forces prevent the emergence of any light – most schools work to suck understanding out of the minds of their students, a function whose successes are reflected in the confusions, conflicts, and contradictions of our world.
The nature of the struggle that goes on for control of our minds has been no better expressed than by the late creative genius Steve Jobs. In discussing his experiences with elementary school, Jobs said: “I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.” My modification of Twain’s earlier comment reads: never let education interfere with your learning; never allow assigned knowledge to undermine your understanding of yourself or the world.January 29, 2013
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.
Copyright © 2013 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.
- Do Thieves Fight Theft? (lewrockwell.com)
- Empowered Leadership at Work and at Home: Lessons from Socrates (kidzedge.com)
- Prof Denied Tenure for Using Socratic Method (taxprof.typepad.com)