Parables & Ponderings

“Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” The poet Yeats here sums up in one sharp sentence the Socratic philosophy of teaching the humanities that I have aspired to for almost half a century. I admit many failures, of course, but am often redeemed by the exuberance of student mental awakening.

Vincent Kavaloski

Yeats was reacting against the didactic memorization that dominated schools in his day. Today, we may no longer demand recitation and blind memorization. But are we really helping ignite the fire of wonder and curiosity, the passion to know, in the minds of our student? Or are we still filling passive bucket-brains on and off line, with loads of data for the final exam and the inevitable “delete button” soon thereafter? The fire in the mind makes for self-motivated autonomous, life-long learners-persons who think for themselves and think with others. Bucket education creates docility and apathy, thus sabotaging the development of self-determination. But in a world of grades, credits and degrees — all external rewards — how do we honor the internal values of learning for learning’s sake, the fire of the mind?

Not long ago I attended a workshop on “cutting-edge pedagogy” given by two nationally known educational consultants. As I expected, most of it was about innovations in communication technology. But toward the end they mentioned a “surprising” approach that affirmed face-to-face mentoring dialogue that can change the lives of students for the better, inspiring them to pursue their own inquiries. The consultants lauded this as a “question-centered dialogue.” I expressed my appreciation for mentioning this, but noted that the method was practiced 2,500 years ago by a Greek nonconformist named Socrates. The consultants responded affably, “Professor, you go so far back that now you are on the cutting edge!” 

Socrates was described by his student (and publicist!) Plato as both a “midwife of ideas” and as a “gadfly of society.” Socrates used probing questions drawn from people’s lives to provoke youth to give birth to their own ideas. Then he proceeded to “bug them” with requests for definitions, evidence and counter-arguments. The young men who clustered around him in the Athenian marketplace obviously loved and respected him as their mentor. 

However, Socrates had two different approaches in his dialogues. Among the young men who were filled with a sincere desire to understand human life, he was nurturing and good humored. But among power-seekers and “know-it-alls” he frequently launched sharp questions to demolish their dogmas and posturing. This led to Plato’s third description of him as a “sting-ray” that shocks and befuddles people. Over time this approach made him enemies in high places, culminating in his trial and execution in 399 BCE.

Be forewarned: The Socratic method is dangerous! Far safer to just fill buckets with data.

Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., lived for 37 years in these Uplands in an intentional, eco-community devoted to peace and harmony with people and the land. He is currently in hospice in Madison having concluded a long academic calling at Edgewood College. He can be reached at vincekavaloski@gmail.com. Mary Friedel-Hunt’s “Living Well, Dying Well” column will return next month.