Wednesday 26 August 2015

Why do teachers use indirect methods like myths and parables? A letter from correspondent BK

This is an insightful e-mail sent me by a correspondent, printed here with permission:

Why did teachers use myth and obscurity? even philosophers? even philosophers who did so consciously or subversively, not believing them, or using them to dissemble their true opinions?

There was a wise man of a primitive forest tribe, who one day finished building a comfortable log cabin.

All the rest of the people lived in mud huts,  so they went to ask the wise man how they might build their own cabins.

'You are free to inspect my house, and ask any questions you like.'

The people made careful observations of the wise man's cabin,  and went inside to inspect all the rooms. He answered all the questions they had in as clear and precise a manner as possible, then they went off to build their own.

All of their cabins looked very much like the wise man's. But one man built his cabin from dead wood, which was weak and cracked. Others had mistaken the wise man's beautifully carved interior beams for decoration,  and omitted or misplaced them according to their tastes - these collapsed. One man built his cabin in a hollow,  and it  sank when the rains came. Another did not thatch his roof properly, and it flooded in the rains.

The people were quite put out. 'Have you withheld your secrets? Do you use magic? Did you lie to us?' they demanded to know.

The wise man had watched their enterprise go awry, and prepared for them. 'I will reveal all to you', he said.

Turning to the man who used dry wood, he struck a bone with marrow against a dry bone, and the dry bone shattered. The man said 'I ask of wood and you clap bones together? You are a fool.'

Next, he handed two stones each to the men who had built their cabins with haphazard beams. He told them to hold the stones,  one in each hand, whilst in various odd positions, and wait for a sign.  

Keeping two stones for himself,  he held each equally away from his body. Though he was one of the weaker of the tribe,  he held the stones easily,  as the others began to strain, grumble and drop their stones. 'Why did our houses collapse? That is all we ask! Perhaps you make us pose so stupidly to hide your own stupidity, for you have no answer.'

Approaching the man who built his home in the hollow, he made a false step into a puddle. After much difficulty,  he pulled his foot from the mud, then fished out his shoe. Sidestepping around the rocky lip of another puddle, he handed the muddy shoe to the man and said,  'This one is yours', and nothing more. The man went away furious at being insulted in this way.

The last, the young man whose roof had failed in the rains,  watched with much puzzlement,  but no anger,  for he had faith the wise man did nothing foolishly, stupidly, or cruelly. To him the wise man came, 'I really cannot help you, but', pointing to some ducks in the pond nearby,  said, 'those fellows know best of keeping dry. Ask them.'

The young man went away perplexed, and sat at the edge of the pond. Thinking perhaps the wise man knew a spirit,  he called out to the ducks, who did not answer. But then a wind came,  and the ducks took flight. From one fell a single feather, which landed on the water and floated like a canoe.

Then the young man understood all: the bones, the stones, the shoe and the feather. He immediately set out to build a cottage on a hill opposite the wise man's, where it stood long after his teacher's house fell, for he learned much of building in the meantime that the master never guessed.

I hate to spoil it, but that's what I'll do (I ruin jokes, too), and I want to tie this directly to your work.

I think we both agree that education today is really advancing stupidity. This is not all consciously Orwellian (though much of it is). But even when done in good faith, I have the dull sense that it is fundamentally destructive in an important way. Remember, communists in Russia crowed they raised literacy rates from 10 to 90% between the revolution and the thirties. The numbers themselves may have been damned lies, but I'm sure more Russians could read in 1937 than in 1917; there is also no doubt which Russia was more stupid and degraded.

Education today is all formal and standardized.  There certainly is a place for this. Wherever a body of knowledge is organized and professionalized, wherever peers share common referents and standards, there is a place for textbooks and jargon, journals, tests and all the rest of it.

But these things don't advance knowledge - they get in the way on the frontiers.

When the wise man let his neighbors copy what he did,  and answered the questions they thought to ask clearly and directly,  the results looked like good cabins but quickly fell apart because the people were not actually thinking. They missed anything in the building that was not immediately obvious, and were completely unprepared for what the wise man did not think to mention, or did not know himself.

The second time,  speaking to each person's problem,  but cryptically, the wise man forced them to think - to draw out implications for themselves. He does not give answers, but encourages students to 'get' them;  and if they can't,  there's no help for them because a direct answer would only lead to another problem. On the other hand,  if one (and there may only be one) 'gets' the point, he not only earns an answer, but a principle and disposition to 'get' more,  and if he has the capacity, perhaps more than the teacher himself was able to understand.

If the first method has its place in the tame and cultivated gardens of formal academia, the latter is the only viable option in the wild. When the tribesmen first failed, it was not their fault. Even the most intelligent among them could not be expected to succeed in the unknown using only what was already familiar.

Myth, fable, poetry, obscurity, and parable all force us to use our intelligence. Is it any wonder we were more creative as a culture,  and more competent,  when we were raised on nonsense and nursery rhymes (who does that anymore? Let Sesame Street spoonfeed your child letters - with a heaping portion of PC. This is proven to increase literacy!)

And is it any wonder God sent us prophets and not professors?

1 comment:

David said...

Outstanding post! I will share this one as there is a lot to be learned from this. Perhaps it should be forwarded to the governments education secretary and we can only hope the penny will drop. An inspiring read to start the day :-)