Knowledge, Facts, and the Ghost of Socrates

by Matthew Turco
July, 1998

TonightÕs main 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.


"I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates who said 'I drank what?'"

-- Val Kilmer in Real Genius

Towards the 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.

Education became 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.

In computer 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.

Our educational 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, not workers.

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So why 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 and arithmetic.

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.

Columbus sailing the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 is a fact.

Knowledge is what allows us to understand what that sentence means.

Let me explainÉ

Everything 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.

The equation 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.

©1998 Matthew Turco

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Generations of Accelerated Learning | The GBD Papers
The Work of Win Wenger | Reviews and Recommendations