Ignorance and Pedagogy

This post is something of a coda to my previous slow reading assignment of Book 2 of the Republic. There, two young brothers of Plato, Glaucon and Adeimantus, revisit the Thrasymachus argument that a just life is worse than an unjust one, despite (i) having just witnessed Thrasymachus “losing” the argument to Socrates, and (ii) expressing the firm belief that the just life is better. They do not waver in the belief and yet are willing and ready to put that belief at peril by making Thrasymachus’ argument even stronger. Belief as such always includes a residuum of doubt, and the brothers voice this doubt as a way of encouraging further thinking with Socrates’ help. Socrates is amazed at his students. (So am I when the same thing happens to me among my own.) This has encouraged me to think again about belief and thinking. I hope this isn’t too repetitive, but here goes:

“Judge a man by his questions, not his answers.” — Voltaire

When ignorance flowers into self-consciousness the result is a question, and when the question is pursued willingly, it aims to terminate with an answer. This often gives the mistaken view that an answer is superior to a question, and it may be. But most answers are swaddled on both sides by ignorance: there is the ignorance overcome in the satisfaction provided by the answer — this is the answer as accomplishment. There is also the ignorance still latent in the answer as opinion/doxa — this is the answer as defect. An answer in thinking/dianoia is held in just this state of tension between accomplishment and defect. In thinking/dianoia, the defect excites more searching without abandoning the accomplishment of the answer. In belief/pistis, on the other hand, an encounter with the defect can be either dispiriting or threatening — either one forfeits the accomplishment of the answer or fights/avoids the question that indicates the defect. Belief/pistis suffers from a “pre-trans fallacy,” confusing the two ignorances with each other — the ignorance already overcome in belief with the ignorance still to be overcome in thinking.

A chief task of education ought therefore to be to encourage fresh encounters with doubt without forestalling the quest for achievement. Questions should give rise to answers, but then the answers should give rise to questions. My own experience with formal education suggests that answers-from-questions tend to predominate over questions-from-answers. I suppose this is understandable, since we only reach thinking by way of belief, and universal questioning too early can forestall the taste for the accomplishment of answers. That said, the best students are almost always the most inquisitive, those who are most sensitive to their doubts and willing to hazard an open question concerning them. But such students are rare and one wonders if there is any pedagogical way to encourage the same inquisitiveness in the others. Can such virtue be taught? Perhaps a first step is to “normalize ignorance” so that to openly question the fixity of an accomplished answer is not only allowed but encouraged. The teacher should be the model in this, openly confessing whatever ignorance he/she may still have concerning a subject so as to elicit thinking from the students. Perhaps we can call this “defective teaching” — a form of teaching first modeled by Socrates. Much so-called Socratic teaching is a pale imitation of the same. The form of teaching may be question and answer, but the bad teachers don’t ask questions without the “right answer” at the ready. Real Socratic teaching requires the teachers to swim in the same waters of ignorance as their students, to re-experience as still living the questions that had before led to prior accomplishment. For such classrooms, the highest moment is when student and teacher emerge from their ignorance to accomplish together something new and unexpected — a moment of true grace.

I am a philosophy teacher and perhaps such modeling is easier in philosophy than in say, math or biology, but I think that every subject has its liminal places where accomplishment and ignorance collide. I have witnessed a large number of teachers who are not worthy of inquisitive students, who take the students’ questions as a threat to whatever curricular dogma they are trying to inculcate. In their defense, I have also seen talented students use the corrosive power of questions to undermine what the teacher and class are struggling to accomplish. Education really is a dialectical puzzle. We can’t privilege either accomplishment or questioning — a truly good question stands upon a huge base of accomplished answers — but must encourage each without undermining the other. This is a task requiring cooperation of both teacher and student, a tough job indeed. A truly good question stands upon a huge base of accomplished answers.

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