Teaching, Learning, and Their Counterfeits
By Mortimer J. Adler
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 nothing but indoctrination.
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
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
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 supposition─that
genuine knowledge can be acquired without an understanding of what is
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 the inevitable
consequence that indoctrination has been accepted as genuine teaching
instead of being abominated as a vicious counterfeit of it.
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
The first of the three insights makes it
clear that teaching, like farming and healing, is a cooperative, not a
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 sources 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
the useful arts, only three are cooperative arts. All the rest are
productive. The three cooperative arts are farming, healing, and
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. Here 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.
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 human beings acquired the skill of working with nature to
facilitate the production of fruits and grains and also edible animal
organisms. Farming thus became the first of the cooperative arts.
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
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 childbirth 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 mind.
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 of their
students as shoemakers produce shoes out of pliable or plastic
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 cause 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
in genuine learning, the activity of the learner's own mind is always
the principal cause of learning, then all learning is by discovery.
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 indoctrination, 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
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 that 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
How do students come by the opinions they hold, especially those acquired in the course of schooling?
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 part.
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 authority of the reasons relevant or the
evidence supporting whatever is to be understood.
remembered, with that memory reinforced temporarily by "boning up for
tests," are opinions for the most part soon forgotten.
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
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 instruction, without acts of thinking and
understanding that involve discovery by the minds of students.