May 21, 2014

Adler: Teaching, Learning, and Their Counterfeits

Teaching, Learning, and Their Counterfeits
By Mortimer J. Adler

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 nothing 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.

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 supposition─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 the 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 sources of indoctrination.

Let me now present a slightly more expanded statement of each of these three insights.


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. 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.

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 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.

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 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 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 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...


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 indoctrination, always consists in activities on the part of teachers that cooperate with activities performed by the minds of students engaged in discovery.


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 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 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 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.

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.


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 instruction, without acts of thinking and understanding that involve discovery by the minds of students.

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