Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Dialectic Dinner Table

In my tent making job, we are taught to use the Socratic method of teaching. By the Socratic method, we are taught to only really ask probing questions. In my job, we focus particularly on observation, and, by asking questions, we are attempting to get people to see differently.
This method forces people to do the "heavy lifting" of thinking and of working out the problem definition and solution themselves. This method is used as opposed to a method where I as teacher "tell and prescribe" the answers, and the student passively "learns". The fact of the matter is that people do not learn util they are forced to struggle with challenging questions. It is this process of problem solving and wrestling with complexity that is true thinking.

Gideon Strauss has a post on this subject. Gideon quoting Thomas Pangle writes,

A liberal education that is truly liberating in the Socratic sense is an education that brings us face to face with disturbing challenges to our deepest and apparently surest moral commitments. It is an education that compels us to rethink our most cherished convictions - to their very roots, thereby to rediscover and refertilize, and, if need be, replant, those roots. The aim of such a probing, if sympathetic, scrutiny of our treasured beliefs is not, of course, to subvert those beliefs; the aim is to transform our beliefs from mere opinions into such grounded moral knowledge as is available to human beings. ... Dialectic provides us with awareness of the genuine strengths of our principles, precisely by forcing us to deal with the most telling actual and potential challenges to those principles. The aim of dialectical education is to leave the subjectivity of "values" behind, by reenacting for ourselves, accepting or modifying, and therefore making truly our own, the great reasonings, the great choices rooted in argument, that ushered in our modern civilization. This kind of approach to the truth, or what Socrates calls his "human wisdom," is the opposite of all dogmatism. ....To achieve this sort of bracing confrontation, we cannot possibly rest satisfied with the sorts of challenges that originate in our own age and culture, because what we seek is precisely critics whose spiritual footholds are outside our cave, outside our own time, outside the basic matrix of our moral outlook.

My read on what this quote is saying is that we need to encounter in our "liberated" education many people with many contrary opinions, and, in the midst of these challenges, our beliefs, having been had argued and hard earned, become our own. This personally hard earned worldview and value system is not mere accepted dogma but is now conviction.

So my question to Gideon is:
At what age should we begin to educate using this "challenging the paradigm" and "breaking and re-making" process. I have my children write essays about all sorts of things, but their thoughts are very simple. My oldest is 10. They go to Christian schools which is in many ways the opposite of what you are talking in thatthe culture is very monolithic.

To this question, I received the following answer from Joe Kearns:
As early as possible, and mostly around the dinner table. It is true, they will not become 'abstract' till about puberty (Piaget was right, mostly), but if they are raised in a home culture that debates ideas, they will be ready. We homeschooled our four, and it gets really exciting (and tiring) in the adolescent years. My grown children, reflecting back, have repeatedly spoken of how our dinner table conversation is different from any they have heard at their friends' homes. Perhaps it helps that we don't follow sports or watch much TV, so the most popular items for discussion are not available to us.

Again, your example goes a very long way. My children have observed that I read across centuries, de-emphasizing current books and majoring in those works that have remained important after the passage of time. Three of the six members of our family have at one time or another attended St. John's College in Annapolis, whose curriculum is entirely discursive, and based entirely upon the "Western Canon".

Finally, in teaching and discussing the Bible, we de-emphasize "right" answers. ("The answer is always 'Jesus'") We challenge their "right" answers..."Are you sure the scriptures are inspired? What do you mean by that? How do you know? Can you know? Does such-and-such really make sense?" etc.

The safety of this depends upon the extent to which your children trust you about truth. Your admission of the possibility of doubt, even about Christian fundamentals, is counterbalanced by the fact that you, an educated, thoughtful, and intelligent person, believe it to be true. The church tends to represent faith as absolute cognitive certainty, the absence of doubt. I think faith can be better described as an incliniation to give God and his self-revelation the benefit of the doubt.

Oh, to create that kind of Socratic and challenging Dialectic Dinner Table, that is my desire in this life. What would our nation and our churches look like if every Christian home was such a parent led place of challenging and liberating learning. What will it take to implement this type of dinner table discussion in your homes? This lofty goal is at the top of my prayer list right next to "remember 6:00pm-8:00pm belongs to the kids".
God Bless,

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