Thursday, February 23, 2012

Adler on Authentic and Phoney Teaching and Learning

     There is a story floating around in our culture that the way some bank tellers are taught to distinguish between real money and counterfeit money is that they handle so much of the real stuff, when a fake comes their way, they know something is amiss.  I am not sure about the authenticity of this anecdote, but I am sure that for anyone who has been exposed to real learning and phony learning, they know the difference.   
     There is certainly a noticeable difference between genuine teachers and mere dispensers of data. There is also the difference between authentic learning, and going though the motions that merely ape learning.   
    How would one know the difference if not trained?  One way would be to listen to those who not only are educated, but also those who have spent a life exploring the Great Books and have conversed for decades to understand and attain a modicum of wisdom on this matter. In an essay entitled, Teaching, Learning, and Their Counterfeits (1976; 1987), Mortimer Adler is a most competent and qualified assistant in our quest.   
     On real teaching Adler says, "these basic insights are epitomized by Socrates when, in the Theaetetus, he describes his role as a teacher by analogy with the service performed by a midwife who does nothing more than assist the pregnant mother to give birth with less pain and more assurance. So, according to Socrates, the teacher assists the inquiring mind of the learner to give birth to knowledge, facilitating the process of discovery on the learner's part."  
     Regarding the true learner, Adler says "Discipline in the traditional liberal arts imparts the skills by which an individual becomes adept at learning. They are the arts of reading and writing, of speaking and listening, of observing, measuring and calculating – the arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, the mathematical arts, and the arts of investigation. Without some proficiency in these arts, no one can learn very much, whether assisted or not by the use of books and the tutelage of teachers. Unless the teacher is himself a skilled learner, a master of the liberal arts which are the arts of learning, he cannot help those he attempts to teach acquire the skills of learning; nor can his superior skill and learning provide the learner with the help he needs in the process of discovery."

There is much more in ths brief essay for those who would seek to learn or teach.