On the Depth and Limits of Knowledge and Educational Change

This past weekend, for the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, we packed up our family and went to the Negev Desert in the south of Israel. We spent several hours at the Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater), a really beautiful and dramatic part of the country. In Israel in general it is difficult to escape history, but especially so at the Makhtesh; just below the Visitor Center is an archaeology walk, with structures from the Iron and Bronze Ages. That is to say nothing of the evidence of the geologic time that can be found in the crater walls.

But this post actually has little to do with huge craters in the ground, but it does have something to do with history. Against this backdrop of a very concrete reminder of time, I read that Steve Hargadon will be interviewing Dennis Littky of Big Picture Learning as part of the Future of Education series. Intrigued, I went to Big Picture’s site and found a notice for an upcoming event they are sponsoring on “Disruptive Innovation” with the curious tagline “First Different, Then Better.”

I say curious because it seems to me–granted, there is very little information about the event itself–that educational change only for the sake of change (“First Different, Then Better”) is counter to what we would want for our schools and makes a number of assumptions about what we are changing away from, the nature of educational change itself, and what the ultimate goal of educational change looks like. I certainly don’t know much about Dennis Littky or his organization, and I am sure that they certainly have the best intentions in mind. I just worry about the unintended consequences of an educational change philosophy like this; we might end up somewhere that we don’t necessarily want to be (like, say, NCLB). However, since I’m reading some historical philosophy for my independent study, what might others say about this take on education? It should be noted for historical accuracy that when these thinkers did their thinking the modern conception of “education” did not exist. I also have to make a disclaimer that I am neither a philosopher nor a historian, but I will do my best to not rip these writings too far out of their historical contexts to learn from them for contemporary times.

The Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text of Hinduism, may seem an unlikely source here, but I was able to find this:

Action… is far inferior to the devotion of the mind. In that devotion seek shelter. Wretched are those whose motive to action is the fruit of action.

This statement is interesting in light of the concept of disruptive innovation, “whose motive to action,” it seems, “is the fruit of action.” Instead of action for its own sake, it seems that the Bhagavad Gita is counseling instead a mindful devotion to greater purposes. In education, can we define what those purposes might be?

Speaking of definitions, I will now jump to Greece. In Plato’s classic The Meno, Socrates is approached by a young man named Meno. Meno asks a deceptively simple question: does virtue come from teaching, from practice, or in some other way. Socrates response is also deceptive:

A sort of drought of wisdom has developed, and it seems that wisdom has left these parts for yours. At any rate, if you want to ask one of the people here such a question there’s no one who won’t laugh and say: ‘Well, stranger, perhaps you think I’m some specially favored person–I’d certainly need to be, to know whether virtue comes from teaching or in what way it does come–but in fact I’m so far from know whether it comes from teaching or not, that actually I don’t even know at all what virtue itself is!‘ And that’s the situation I’m in too, Meno. (emphasis added)

The Meno is a wonderfully rich and classic Socratic dialogue in which Socrates helps Meno develop a sense of virtue by asking questions. It is not an easy process, and Meno likens Socrates to the torpedo fish as Meno, who was so certain of his line of questioning and expecting a direct response, is stunned into a stupor of uncertainty. It is through this uncertainty–a disruption of certainty rather than a disruptive innovation–that both Meno and Socrates grow, plumbing the depths of their own knowledge as well as seeking out new limits to their understanding:

…we shall be better people… by supposing that one should enquire about things one doesn’t know, than if we suppose that when we don’t know things we can’t find them out eiter and needn’t search for them….

Note that this disruption and perplexity leads to inquiry into the nature and understanding of concepts and things and a consideration of their value and meaning. “First Different, Then Better” does produce a perturbation, but with little thought to the contingencies and consequences of this change; this would be little different than throwing a stone into still water and watching the ripples. We have no idea as to whether or not this is a “good” change for “good” reasons. My supposition, however, is that “disruptive innovation” assumes that change by its very nature is “good,” an assumption in dire need of a torpedo fish.

The last words belong to Confucius:

The Book of Songs says: ‘In hewing an axe handle, the pattern is not far off.’ Thus, when we take an axe handle in our hand to hew another axe handle and glance from one to the other, some still think the pattern is far off.

Here Confucius is referring to the idea that when making something new we need not look to some distant place, some place far off in the future. We can look at what we have already and learn from it. In the way that I am reading it, he is not saying that there is no room for any change, but instead we need to look at what we have for we may learn from it.

A “lessons learned” strategy to educational change seems to be one way mitigate change for the sake of change, but such a strategy usually draws upon a limited set of empirical research that point to efficiency or a particular definition of success and leave out the “why” and “what for.” Such research is important, nor am I advocating for a form of historical determinism, but such research is a small sliver compared to the collective inquiry and understanding built up over the course of human history.

A progressive and humanistic approach to education and educational change needs to be in dialogue with the long arc of the human narrative rather than working hard to slough it off. We need to be mindful of the wealth of human understanding throughout history and consider the meanings and value of where it is we want to go rather than just perturbate the system for the sake of change.

Panorama of the walls of the Makhtesh Ramon

Commins, S., & Linscott, R. N. (Eds.). (1947). From The Bhagavadgita: The Way to Purity. In Man and Spirit: The Speculative Philosophers, The World’s Great Thinkers (pp. 107-125). New York: Random House.
Confucius. (1947). The Wisdom of Confucius. In S. Commins & R. N. Linscott (Eds.), Man and Man: The Social Philosophers, The World’s Great Thinkers (pp. 321-355). New York: Random House.
Plato. (1994). The Meno. In J. M. Day (Ed.), J. M. Day (Tran.), Plato’s Meno, In Focus (pp. 35-72). London: Routledge.