Compare two teaching experiences. In classroom A, the training is fully programmed. The teacher knows exactly what material will be covered during each session, how it will be passed on to students, and how students will be assessed. All lesson plans, pedagogical techniques and assessments (multiple choice tests) were prepared before the start of the school year. In Classroom B, the training involves a significant degree of improvisation by both teachers and students, the format of learning depends on how each session develops, and the assessment is largely determined by developments in the classroom. Neither the teacher nor the students could know how they would develop before the start of the course or even before each session.
Classroom A, a model for programmed teaching, lacks many virtues compared to Classroom B. It enables teachers, students, school administrators and external reviewers to know with a high level of certainty what is going on in the classroom every day. Without one or the other fire brigade exercise or disruption in the classroom, the school year progresses like clockwork. Should a teacher fall ill or have to miss part of the course for any reason, another teacher can just jump in and follow the lesson plan. Students who miss class know exactly what work they need to catch up on. Like a well-coordinated assembly line in a highly efficient factory, the programmed instruction hums along and produces a predetermined product year after year.
However, there is one major problem with the industrial education model. It assumes that every teacher and student is pretty much the same as every other, essentially interchangeable. It is a unified educational model where differences between teachers and students are treated as irrelevant or possibly erasable. In elementary school, every student must learn to read, and every student should be taught to read the same way and achieve the same reading level by the end of the semester. In medical school, an educational setting where I spend a lot more time, every medical student should learn the same anatomy and pathology, internal medicine and surgery as everyone else, and sit exams for exactly the same multiple-choice achievement and licensing.
Many educational politicians would find classroom B anathema. How can a responsible administrator possibly allow teachers to determine what they teach, how to teach it, and how students are assessed? How can a responsible teacher possibly allow students to influence similar matters? In short, how can education tolerate craftsmanship? Wouldn’t the result be a mess if students in different schools and classes do and learn different things and are assessed by different standards? In a word, education would not be standardized, i.e. tailor-made to some extent, and once a level of artisanal, tailor-made education replaces the industrial model, all claims to accountability and fairness seem to fly out of the window.
Socrates seems to have been aware of this tension between standardization and adaptation in education. At Plato’s Symposium, the Socratic irony is in full force as he ponders wistfully, “If only wisdom were some kind of thing that could flow out of the one of us that is fuller into the emptier by our mere contact with one another, like water flows through a straw from a full cup to an empty one. “If only that were so, we could simply position the students near the teachers, connect them with straws, computer cables or wireless signals, and watch the precious flow of fluids from teacher to student, knowing that each student is getting exactly the same. We could then hold each student to a measuring stick and check that the mission was completed.
But of course Socrates knows that wisdom is not such a liquid. We can download data to a digital storage device, but a person is not a storage device and what they need to grow is not data. Socrates pursued knowledge through conversation and Plato wrote in dialogues not because they had nothing better to do, but because such a learning model best reflected their understanding of what it means to know. True wisdom, which includes an understanding of what kind of knowledge is most worth pursuing, is acquired not through mere reading or listening, but through active engagement in something that resembles a conversation. In this way, it seems that John Adams has read books and filled the margins with his handwritten observations, guesses, and objections, as if talking to the author.
What matters is not so much what a teacher can bring into a student, but how an educator can involve a learner in the common pursuit of understanding.
Plato’s dialogues are filled with characters that differ from one another. With his urbanity, Meno only wants to impress the people he meets as a hiking teacher for rhetoric. Thrasymachos wants to prevail against his opponents. Simmias and Cebes want to know why, in the face of death, it still matters whether one is virtuous or not. Socrates not only pours out wisdom, some of which may or may not end up in an empty vessel. He talks to certain people, each of whom has his own questions, motives, skills, life experiences and his own character. To gain wisdom, teachers need to know who they are working with – what serves one well may not work so well for another.
Furthermore, the student is not an empty vessel, not a passive vessel. In order to find wisdom, or perhaps to be found through wisdom, it is necessary to actively participate in its pursuit. Reading a good book or listening to a good talk can encourage such engagement, but the ideal educational model is artisanal. My graduation courses on the Social Thought Committee at the University of Chicago were almost never lecture-based. Most were seminars in which teachers and students sat at a table on a stage instead of a wise man and were invited and encouraged to join the conversation. A good part were tutorials, in which a teacher and a single student spent the session in active exchange and the student often had most of the conversations. The teachers learned directly with the students.
This conversational spirit is captured well by Michael Oakeshott, who contrasted it with “a company that aims to make an extrinsic profit” or “a competition where a winner receives a prize”. Instead, he wrote, conversation is “an untested intellectual adventure”. If Socrates, Plato, and Oakeshott are right, then Classroom A is essentially doomed, at least when education is aimed at engaging a portion of the student beyond bare memory. And, in fact, learning remains active even when memorizing. In order to learn something we have to see it in relation to what we have already known or experienced. If an idea hovers in isolation in the mental space, then we don’t really know it and under no circumstances will we be able to understand it or be able to remember it in the long term. At least we need to know why it is worth holding on to.
Classroom A, education as mass production, seems rational. It seems efficient. It seems fair – after all, everyone gets the same material by the same means, followed by the same ratings. But from a Socratic perspective, it’s not really education. Etymologically, education means to lead or pull out. What matters is not so much what a teacher can bring into a student, but how an educator can involve a learner in the common pursuit of understanding. It’s not so much about sticking to what has been said, but rather about developing an innate taste for exploration and the joy of discovery. It’s not about making copies of the teacher or even an ideal student, but rather helping learners become better versions of themselves, each capable of contributing to families, communities, and humanity in different ways.
Education at its best invites us to participate in something that is beyond us – a conversation that began long before we arrived and continues after we are gone. Some geniuses may enter it all by themselves, but most of us depend on the training we receive to be introduced and maintained in it. Once we become a part of it, it can offer us great treasure – not so much money, power, or fame, but answers to our questions and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to ask even better ones. If all goes well, there may be an opportunity not only to listen, but also to contribute in ways that others will find enlightening. One such contribution, which is incumbent on each participant, is to defend and advance the role of craft in education – to create and serve in classroom B.