44. Education and Discovery, Part 3

The last two posts I looked at the interactive models of education proposed by Socrates (470-399) and John Dewey (1859-1952). Now it is time to briefly compare the two models and draw some conclusions for individual and political growth.

Similarities between Socrates and Dewey:

  • Both emphasize shared inquiry: pedagogy is not a matter of an asymmetrical relationship whereby pupils become passive conformists to active teachers.
  • Discovery, rather than repetition, is central: both the Socratic method and Dewey’s method seek to give rise to new realizations that were not known when the inquiry began.
  • Both visions see perplexity as central to the process of learning: the Socratic method generates perplexity and Dewey argues that all thinking begins with perplexity and seeks to remove it by forming hypotheses and doing experiments.

There are, however, at least three differences:

  • Socrates knows very little: he knows that he knows nothing and seems to know something about love. But teachers in Dewey’s vision can indeed have knowledge or warranted assertions that have guided action successfully in the past.  Of course, as we have seen, Dewey claims communication “modifies the disposition of both the parties who partake in it” and democracy thrives on “pooled intelligence constituted by all”.  So education is certainly no one way street.  But such facts of interaction are consistent with authority figures. It is possible that the Socrates’ lack of knowledge really means he has no certainty in his beliefs.If this is the case then he would be closer to Dewey who also claims we can have no certainty. But Socrates may have believed knowledge should be certain. Dewey would deny this (see his book The Quest for Certainty).
  • Dewey, following Darwin, doesn’t believe in a transcendent world or supernatural realm of timeless truth.  We live in a changing world that is physical.  Knowledge can be achieved when we come to understand how change works and how we can direct changes in ways that bring forth growth. But Socrates, as depicted in many of Plato’s dialogues (e.g., PhaedoMenoRepublic, Symposium, and Phaedrus), seems to seriously consider that the physical world was an imperfect copy of the non-physical world.  The physical world, because it is always changing, can give us no truth since truth must be of objects that don’t change.  If we come to know anything, we come to recollect, in our soul, objects that eternally exist in the non-physical world, a place outside of space and time, a place to which our souls return when they are divorced from the body in death. These may be Plato’s ideas put through the character Socrates. Perhaps in reality Socrates was, like Dewey, uninterested in metaphysical speculation. But whatever the case, these ideas are associated with Socrates in many dialogues and thus should be kept in mind as comparisons between these thinkers are made.
  • Plato’s Socrates seems to think democracy is a terrible form of government; in fact, he argues it is the second to worst form, coming in right behind tyranny. An aristocracy, the rule of the best, is superior according to Socrates. Again, a careful reading of various dialogues may reveal that Socrates’ mission is actually more supportive of democracy than is often thought. In this case, Socrates and Dewey would again come closer. But there is no doubt that many passages in The Republic are anti-democratic and must be addressed in any responsible comparison between these thinkers.


There are many implications of these two radical pedagogies that are worth our attention.  However, there is one that really stands out for me in terms of its relevance for us today.  This is the spirit of individual discovery that permeates both approaches. To understand this notion of individual discovery is to see the enduring legacy of Socrates and Dewey. Following John Stuart Mill’s analysis in chapter 4 of On Liberty (1859), I think this legacy should emphasize how the development of individuality is integrally related to both self-actualization and a healthy society.

So much of our current pedagogical practice is marked by the memorization of information, ideas, facts, theories, and arguments that someone else has discovered. But one of the more gratifying experiences in life is to discover something oneself by following an inquiry into the unknown that arrives at an unforeseen destination. Artists, if they are not simply reproducing something that has gone before, enjoy the fruits of struggling with material and seeing something gradually form out of the creative process. Their tentative plan gets altered in light of the struggle and something new emerges. Unfortunately, when it comes to education, this artistic dimension gets overshadowed by techniques of repetition. Test scores are important if one is to get a good job and our culture has placed money at the top of its value system. To be sure, those who value scores and money are not necessarily misguided.  But to only value such things is problematic. But why exactly?

To reduce education to techniques of uncreative repetition and conformity is to undermine the conditions for individuality. Recall that Dewey is thinking in light of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  He hopes that, after being empowered with the method of reflective experience, people will be prepared to adjust to the challenges of an ever-changing world. Right now, our world is changing fast.  Our so-called global village is, in many ways, a village of information that is constantly being updated, revised, criticized, shared, corrupted, and stolen.  To enter into this network of peril and promise with a passive mind is to run the risk of being lost in it, manipulated by it, or destroyed by it. Our world is full of career changes, relationship changes, and radical cultural changes. Can we expect a person emerging from a non-interactive education process to reflect on the all these changes in such a way that coherent and consistent self-realization comes to pass? I don’t think we can. Indeed, what Socrates was finding in Athens was something very similar: tremendous change everywhere leading people to lead rushed lives that were not examined and therefore not worth living.

And what of the social order in which the individual lives? If we foster the passive reception of information we cannot expect to have engaged, critical citizens. If we foster an excessive obedience to authority we cannot expect to avoid conformists that will follow unjust and immoral beliefs into tragedy. And if we produce corporate mentalities bent on winning the rat race then we cannot complain when the darker aspects of capitalism and corporate greed become so destructive.

If educators fail to integrate the teaching of Socrates and Dewey we will continually produce people who will lose their ability to realize their unique potentials.  And this loss, in turn, will negatively affect our democracy and culture at large. The path of discovery, if it is to be rewarding and productive, is never easy. This, of course, is a serious problem.  The desire for instant gratification prevents many from undergoing any meaningful process of discovery that could lead to unique discoveries. As we have seen, the methods set out by Socrates and Dewey include perplexity, set backs, revisions, and doubts. Many people periodically want to engage in some creative process that will help them find their calling, be happy, or stand out as unique. But many quit if transformation doesn’t come fast. Resistance, rather than being seen as an occasion for development, is seen as an impasse. And, to make matters worse, the sophists that were so popular in Socrates’ time are still around. They are waiting, for a price to be sure, to give people something that will let them appear to be what they want to be rather than being what they want to be. There are plenty of ways to spend your money if you want to pretend to be creative, thoughtful, adventurous, and politically active. But in the end, many end up as poor as they are unfulfilled.

This scenario should be absolutely unacceptable to us. As people committed to learning we need to believe that we can educate ourselves and others so that individual and social growth is possible. Luckily, we are in possession of the legacy of Socrates and Dewey, a legacy I like to call the “pedagogy of discovery”.  It is a legacy we can’t afford to overlook given our current realities. And it is a legacy each one of us can add to, renew, and pass on to others.  In doing so we both transform ourselves and help form foundations for discovery in others.

For my series on solitude and education, go here. For my thoughts on aesthetics and education, go here.

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