The Way of Humble Ignorance

I want to try and define a roadblock to becoming a better teacher that I see in myself and others regularly, but that our culture has made very difficult for us to apprehend. I think this struggle reveals several issues in our modern definition and pursuit of education that have contributed to our current rather dismal practice of formal education.  The easiest way I know to introduce the obstacle is to use the term “sophomore.”

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Every year that I can, I try to help the current crop of sophomores in high school understand the meaning of their label.  Because we don’t teach Greek anymore, most of them have no idea what their title means.  If you know Greek, then you immediately see that the title is paradoxical.  Sopho is rooted in the term for “wise.”  More is derived from the form for “fool.”  This means that these young scholars are labeled those who are wise fools.  I think many in our day struggle with this syndrome.  Believing ourselves to be wise, we become fools.

Now that I have offended us all (and most kids that listen to my presentation are offended by the “fool” part even if they are surprised that anyone would accuse them of being “wise”), let me explain.

Becoming wise is the end accomplished through the means of knowing, understanding, imagining, and doing.  We live in a world created in just such a way by its Creator.  To live happily in that world, we must live according to its created order, not against it.  This means we must come to know how it is made by essentially accumulating facts about it.  Then we must seek to understand how this accumulating knowledge integrates into a synthesized whole (note for later that we never stop any of the acts of education at any point in our lives).  We are then faced with a moral set of decisions which demand that we engage a prepared imagination which leads us to act differently and purposefully upon what we have learned.  This is very compact and rushed, but if you follow me so far, we can now look at the sophomore’s problems.

Facts are Enough – Many believe that education is simply the acquiring of facts.  They think of it simply in terms of learning what I need to know, which might at most include the first two acts.  This destroys the overall scheme by cutting off its necessary ends.  There is no education without “facts” or knowledge, but there is no education with “just the facts.”

Understanding is Personal – Even if many do move on to trying to organize and understand the facts into a meaningful whole, our culture teaches them that it is just their own opinion, or that it’s personal.  What does it mean to you?  This kills education by making it of no use outside the singular individual.  And it kills education by ultimately leading us only to a contemplative cul-de-sac.  Stopping here is the error of those in ivory towers.

Learning is Specialized – Because we have taught ourselves to believe that facts define education, source becomes king.  The best education is gained by seeking the facts from the specialist, he who has gone beyond all the rest in obtaining facts about the specific subject we are seeking to learn more about.  But then we begin to believe that in the subject of “learning” we are at the mercy of the learning specialists.  We can’t teach ourselves much of anything, but rather have to go somewhere and be taught by specialists in teaching.  Now our formal program of education becomes the measure, not what we actually learned, but that we survived the gauntlet of specialized experts who lined up along our formal years of schooling.  Sophomores think all learning only occurs in school.

Loss of Imagination – All of the above add to the loss of any imagination.  True learning calls for action, and not actions that only relate to learning.  Most people equate learning with performance in school:  What grade did you get?  Are you studying for exams?  How is your paper on ___ coming along?  I am not calling for a tossing of these actions, but rather for moving beyond these actions to the real life applications of these things that cause moral movement.  The grade, paper, exam, etc. should cause me to learn in such a way as to change how I live my life.  That class in X should in some way prepare me to view and act in this created world in a way I did not imagine before I learned those lessons.  And real imagination brings me outside the formal classroom into the “class” of life where lessons abound.  Sophomores remain grade hounds.  They constantly remind us of their GPA while living the life of hard knocks.

Ordering of Affections – I hesitate to even bring this up, because it is too big for this place.  But it is at the heart of our struggles with education.  In our desire to get kids to learn we have made all subjects equal, taught by specialists who each believe their piece of the pie is best, and thus we confuse ourselves about the hierarchy of goods in this world.  Some things are worth more of our love than others.  Just to be brief, consider that many mainly are motivated to excel in school in order to obtain a good living wage.  I maintain that such an end is much “lower” than the pursuit of a good life, but many define the good life by one’s salary, thus aiming for the lower good.  Aim for the highest good (the good life) and you should be well prepared to gain the lower goods as well.  Sophomores are too easily satisfied.

Learning is Temporary – all that has come before this brings us to this point.  If education is mainly defined by fact acquisition from experts who help you obtain the wages you seek, then school/learning/education are all temporary pains for the vaunted end.  You get your degree, burn your notebooks, and start living the real life.  Sophomores are people who think you graduate out of education.

But I stated at the start that I was identifying roadblocks to good teaching.  And I have been, but only if you define a teacher first and foremost as a learner.  If a teacher buys any or all of the above for himself, then he will reproduce such in his students, and will resist the life of a teacher as learner because he thinks he already went “to school” and got his degree and now simply needs to transfer said knowledge to the young minds before him.  The greatest teachers in the world are those who most voraciously devour learning daily.  One overcomes being a sophomore by remaining a freshman all his life.

I can’t possibly develop all this in one blog and keep it to a readable length, but if you have grasped the husk of the issue, perhaps you and I together than pursue its remedy.

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