Facts, and the Ghost of Socrates
event - Tabla Rasa versus Socrates
A grudge match,
15 rounds, the future of education is at stake
In this corner,
weighing in with "2500 year old script and a few dead philosophers"
is the Socratic method Ñ it states that all knowledge is within
and must be drawn forth
In this corner,
weighing in with "just about every 20th century
institution of learning" is Tabla Rasa Ñ it states that the
mind is a blank slate and we must fill it.
How do we know
what we know when we know it? One of the first guys to answer this
question was Socrates. He hypothesized that all knowledge was somewhere
within every one of us and by engaging in stimulating dialogue (or
polylogue), we can elicit all there is to know. To support this
claim, he would gather crowds of young men wearing stylish togas
and create lively, accelerated learning environments like the world
had never seen. His genius enabled ancient Greece to reach a potential
that far exceeding any other region of its time (and many more since).
And so it went
for decades, and then centuries. Learning was an active, involved
process that allowed both the student and the teacher to grow and
reach new heights of understanding and synthesis.
thinking of the immortal words of Socrates who said 'I drank what?'"
-- Val Kilmer
in Real Genius
end of the 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution
pervaded civilization, education started to become accessible to
the masses through public schooling. Until then, education was mostly
private, tutorial, and offered primarily to the privileged. When
industry created a demand for a more educated populace, a new era
of education was born.
But there was
a price. Something drastic changed in the way students were taught.
less about learning and more about memorizing and reciting names,
dates, and rules. The age of science brought about new scientific
languages, theorems, laws and models that were "taught"
rather than continually discovered. Teaching became didactic--where
the teacher would present a bunch of information for the students
to regurgitate on a test.
lingo, thereÕs a popular acronym Ñ GIGO. It stands for Garbage In,
Garbage Out. A computer is infinitely stupid. It doesnÕt know what
you want, it only knows what you tell it to do. It doesnÕt interpret.
It doesnÕt think. It just spits out exactly what you tell it to
spit out?regardless of our actual desires.
system has created masses of unthinking drones that have been trained
to regurgitate irrelevant facts. Is it any wonder that computers
are replacing so many jobs? Computer were supposed to be tools,
GBD.com without it costing you a dime. Learn
was the Socratic method abandoned in the first place? Why didnÕt
it just transfer over to public schools?
A big part
of the reason was standardization. In the industrial world, unknowns
and uncertainties are liabilities. Since the Socratic method usually
requires an open, informal dialogue, it is more difficult to measure
each step of the sequence. Thus, it was considered only suitable
for small groups of students studying the liberal arts, not the
large classrooms of students learning the basics of reading, writing
For a while
now, Win Wenger has been making a case for the return to a Socratic
style of teaching and learning. His argument is most powerfully
represented in his book Beyond Teaching and Learning. But
in order for his ideas to be accepted on a greater scale, we have
to redefine the Socratic method and make a few important distinctions.
The word 'educate'
is derived from Latin and means 'to draw forth'. However, I have
serious doubts that the Pythagorean Theorem was somewhere lurking
in my unconscious before it was presented to me in Geometry class.
The same goes with all those historical names and dates, obscure
rules of grammar, and the dozens of other kinds of information I
learned in school.
So it seems
that didactic teachers are correct--that all mind are a blank slate
waiting to be filled. Well, not exactly.
What did Socrates
mean when he used the word knowledge?
One key distinction
that shed light on this issue is one brought up in our all-too-brief
philosophy presentation at Double Festival Six by Kevin Kraus. That
is that knowledge and facts are not the same.
the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 is a fact.
what allows us to understand what that sentence means.
Let me explainÉ
that you know is represented metaphorically by your unconscious.
Every phrase and every word has absolutely no meaning of its own.
It only has the meaning that you attach to it. And on a deeper level,
that means that everything you know is somehow represented in images,
sounds, and feelings?the fundamental language of the brain.
When a didactic
teacher argues that the Pythagorean Theorem is NOT already within
us and ready to be "drawn forth", heÕs right. WeÕre not
born with a2 + b2 = c2 somewhere
lurking in our unconscious. But as we encode our entire lives as
sensory experience, we build a metaphorical library of patterns
that is "drawn forth" in useful ways so that we may make
greater sense of the world around us. The equation is simply a means
of universally representing and communicating the relationship of
sides of a triangle.
by itself is a fact. But the understanding of what that equation
means is knowledge.
So whatÕs more
useful, facts or knowledge? As Win Wenger states in several of his
books, discovery and innovation doesnÕt come from regurgitation
of "facts". They come from challenging facts and seeking
a greater level of meaning in what those "facts" represent.
He further states that innovation doesnÕt happen on an abstract,
intellectual level, although it often appears that way because that
is how it is communicated. True innovation happens on a deep, metaphorical
level?the level elicited via image streaming.
So who will
win the grudge match? Socrates or Table Rasa? While I donÕt claim
to be able to tell the future, the smart money is on the second
coming of Socrates. The 21st century will demand it.