Teaching, Learning and Their Counterfeits
Mortimer J. Adler
[date of publicaton not known]
Everyone knows, or certainly should know, that indoctrination is not
genuine teaching and that the results of indoctrination are the very
opposite of genuine learning. Yet, as a matter of fact, much that goes
on in the classrooms of our schools is no thing but indoctrination. .
. . . .
How can this have come about? How can we have so misunderstood the
nature of teaching and learning that their counterfeits rather than
the genuine articles are rampant in our schools? The answer lies in
the loss of three insights about the nature of teaching and
learning, in consequence of which three mistakes are made.
1. It is mistakenly supposed that the activity of teachers is
always the principal and sometimes the sole cause of the learning
that occurs in students.
2. When it is said that all learning is either by instruction or
by discovery, it is mistakenly supposed that what students learn by
instruction is something they passively receive from their teachers.
3. The failure to distinguish genuine knowledge from mere opinion,
together with the failure to distinguish impressions made on and
retained by the memory from the development of understanding in the
mind, arises a third mistaken suppositi on -- that genuine knowledge
can be acquired without an understanding of what is known.
These three mistaken suppositions are so integrally related
to one another that if any one of them is made, the other two will be
made also. It is, therefore, not surprising that all three have been
made by the reigning education establishment with th e inevitable
consequence that indoctrination has been accepted as genuine teaching
instead of being abominated as a vicious counterfeit of it. Nor should
it be surprising that the three basic insights, by which the mistaken
suppositions can be corrected, are also so integrally related that the
understanding of genuine teaching which derives from any one of these
three insights will be accompanied by an understanding of genuine
teaching derived from the other two. In addition, with that threefold
understanding of genuine teaching will come an understanding of
genuine learning as a development of the mind, not a formation of
memories, and as a acquisition of knowledge and understanding, not an
adoption of indoctrinated opinions.
The first of the three insights makes it clear that teaching, like
farming and healing, is a cooperative, not a productive, art. The
second insight is that all learning is by discovery, either by
discovery alone or be discovery aided by instruction, but never by
instruction alone. The third insight is that bits of information or
matters of fact retained by the memory with no understanding of the
information or the facts remembered is not knowledge, but mere
opinion, no better than prejudices fostered by propaganda or other
sourc es of indoctrination. Let me now present a slightly more
expanded statement of each of these three insights.
I. Teaching is a Cooperative, Not a Productive, Art. Among
the useful arts, only three are cooperative arts. All the rest are
productive. The three cooperative arts are farming, healing, and
teaching. In the case of such useful arts as shoe-making,
ship-building, and cabinet-making, the results produced would not
come into existence were it not for the activity of the artist or
craftsman -- the shoemaker, the shipwright, the carpenter. The
materials out of which shoes, ships, and furniture are made, left to
themselves, would not naturally tend to produce those things. Such
useful products emerge only when craftsmen intervene to shape or
transform raw materials into the desired objects. Her e human
productive activity is not only the principal, but also the sole
efficient cause of the result achieved. Now consider such things as
the fruits and grains we eat, the health we possess, and the
knowledge or understanding we acquire. We might call these things,
respectively, the products of agriculture, of medicine, and of
education. In the case of the fruits and grains, as well as edible
animal organisms, prehistoric people were hunters and gatherers.
This means that the edibles they consumed were all products of
nature, which they merely picked or killed in order to consume them.
Farming began when beings acquire the skill of working with nature
to facilitate the production of fruit s and grains and also edible
animal organisms. Farming thus became the first of the cooperative
arts. Long before the art of medicine came into existence, human
beings possessed health as the result of natural causes. Medicine or
the art of healing emerged when humans acquired the skill of
cooperating with these natural processes to preserve health or
facilitate its recovery after a bout of illness. Finally we come to
teaching, and here it is Socrates who first depicted teaching as a
cooperative art. He did so by comparing his own style of teaching
with the work of the midwife. It is the mother, not the midwife, who
goes through the pains of chi ldbirth to deliver the child. The
midwife merely cooperates with the process, helping the mothering in
her efforts, and making childbirth a little easier and a little more
hygienic. Another way of saying this is to point out that teachers,
like midwives, are always dispensable. Children can be born without
midwives. Knowledge and understanding can be acquired without
teachers, through the purely natural operations of the human mi nd.
Teachers who regard themselves as the principal, even the sole,
cause of the learning that occurs in their students simply do not
understand teaching as a cooperative art. They think of themselves
as producing knowledge or understanding in the minds o f their
students as shoemakers produce shoes out of pliable or plastic
materials. Only when teachers realize that the principal cause of
the learning that occurs in a student is the activity of the
student's own mind do they assume the role of cooperative artists.
While the activity of the learner's mind is the principal c ause of
all learning, it is not the sole cause. Here the teacher steps in as
a secondary and cooperative cause. Just as, in the view of
Hippocrates, surgery is a departure from healing as a cooperative
art, so, in the view of Socrates, didactic teaching, or teaching by
lecturing or telling rather than teaching by questioning and
discussion, is a departure from teaching as a cooperative art. . . .
II. Learning by Instruction and by Discovery. If in
genuine learning, the activity of the learner's own mind is always
the principal cause of learning, then all learning is by discovery.
It may be either a) unaided discovery, when the activity of the
learner's mind is the principal, but also the sole cause of
learning, or b) aided discovery, when the activity of the learner's
mind is the principal, but not the sole cause of learning.
When instruction is not accompanied by discovery, when instruction
makes impressions on the memory with no act of understanding by the
mind, then it is not genuine teaching, but mere indoctrination.
Genuine teaching, in sharp distinction from indoctri nation, always
consists in activities on the part of teachers that cooperate with
activities performed by the minds of students engaged in discovery.
III. Mind vs. Memory, Knowledge vs. Opinion. The Greek
word for mind, nous, identifies it with understanding. What we do
not understand at all is possessed by us only as an item remembered.
Memory is a by-product of sense-perception; understanding, an act of
the intellect. Statements th at are verbally remembered and recalled
should never be confused with facts understood. Correlated with this
distinction between mind and memory is the distinction between
knowledge and opinion. To know something as opposed to holding a
mere opinion about it is to understand it in the light of relevant
reasons and supporting evidence. How do students come by the
opinions they hold, especially those acquired in the course of
schooling? They have adopted them on the naked authority of teachers
who acted as if they were productive, not cooperative, artists --
teachers who indoctrinated them by didactic instruction that was not
accompanied by any acts of thinking or discovery on their p art. I
have used the phrase "naked authority" to signify the
authority arrogated to themselves by teachers who expect students to
accept what they tell them simply because they occupy the position
of teachers. The only legitimate authority is the author ity of the
reasons relevant or the evidence supporting whatever is to be
Opinions remembered, with that memory reinforced temporarily by "boning
up for tests," are opinions for the most part soon forgotten. .
. . .The understanding of ideas. . .once acquired, has maximum
durability. What is understood cannot be forgotten because it is a
habit of the intellect, not something remembered.
IV. Concluding Remarks. The conception of the teacher as
one who has knowledge of information that he or she transmits to
students as passive recipients of it violates the nature of teaching
as a cooperative art. It assumes that genuine learning can occur
simply by instructi on, without acts of thinking and understanding
that involve discovery by the minds of students.