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Learning Through Stories: How to Start Teaching the Truth

Learning Through Stories: How To Start Teaching The Truth

Teaching and Learning[1]

In Guide to Thomas Aquinas, Josef Pieper points out that Aquinas was attracted to the Order of Preachers, in good part, because of his love of teaching, and, we might infer, his love of learning.  The adage, “he who can’t do, teaches,” is clearly false for the medieval Dominican, whose task was inter alia to refute false doctrines and propagate the true one; his doing was intrinsically pedagogical.  For Aquinas, there was much at stake in teaching, and in doing so well: a poor teacher would be ineffective in clearing the way of falsehood, whereas a false teacher, especially a rhetorically talented one, would be harmful to the faith by defending error, making false doctrines appear truthful, as Siger de Brabant did in Aquinas’ day.  There is evidently still much at stake in teaching, and many poor and false teachers with whom to contend; the heresies may have changed, but false doctrines abound.

About this affection for teaching, Pieper writes:

“Teaching does not consist in a man’s making public talks on the results of his meditations, even if he does so ex cathedra before a large audience.  Teaching in the real sense takes place only when the hearer is reached – not by dint of some personal magnetism or verbal magic, but rather, when the truth of what is said reaches the hearer as truth.  Real teaching takes place only when its ultimate result – which must be intended from the start – is achieved: when the hearer is ‘taught.’”[2]  

Although the comportment of professional teachers may not always exemplify it, it is obvious enough that there can be no teaching without consequent learning.  As much as good lecturing may be a means by which learning occurs, sophisticated and clever lecturing is not of itself teaching.  Nor are charming lecturers, who appear learned and whose magnetism cultivates discipleship, necessarily genuine teachers.  No matter how intelligent or charismatic a speaker may be, we cannot call him a teacher if no one learns from him.  Professional teachers occasionally forget this while lamenting their students’ intellectual weaknesses, but such frustration is not decisive.  All sensible teachers know that students are meant to learn from them, and they know that if theirs do not, something is being done wrongly.  Of course, some students are ill-suited to learning and others are unwilling, but it is highly unlikely that all the young people who bother to attend school, especially the ones who do so voluntarily at some, and often at great, cost to themselves and their families, are so.  If no student learns, teaching simply does not happen.

In contrast, it is much less obvious that teaching is always of the truth, not only because relativism – so common in the contemporary world, including the world of higher education – rejects the meaningfulness of truth altogether, but because truth might seem to many teachers and scholars a rather high bar and rarefied goal.  Is one not teaching if students grasp the speaker’s opinions, even though they be untrue?  Are students not learning when a teacher’s propositions, whether true or false, are remembered and restated?  Is not the process of transmitting ideas, even bad and false ones, teaching and learning, too?

In the Teacher, St. Augustine warns against just this presumption.  Only fools, he says, would send their children to school to hear teachers’ opinions.[3]  The point of education is not to receive opinions, no matter how refined or apparently learned those opinions happen to be.  The point is to know what is and what is not so, to apprehend reality as it is.  To espouse doctrines that are false is not teaching, and to hear and appropriate propositions that are mistaken is not learning.  In the absence of truth, what is called teaching and learning is merely the propagation of error and proliferation of confusion.  Any opinions the student receives from the teacher should be true.

But teaching does not merely involve presenting true propositions to students, and learning does not merely involve appropriating those propositions, as if a teacher’s apparent expertise justifies accepting the content of lessons on authority.  According to Pieper, “being taught is something else again from being carried away, and something else again from being dominated by another’s intellect.  Being taught means to perceive why this is so.”[4]  It is not enough to come to believe the truth or hold true opinions.  Students must also come to understand the truth for themselves; they must know why it is true.  As Augustine puts it, “when the teachers have explained by means of words all the disciplines they profess to teach, even the disciplines of virtue and of wisdom, then those who are called ‘students’ consider within themselves whether truths have been stated.  They do so by looking upon the inner Truth, according to their abilities.  That is therefore the point at which they learn.”[5]  Teaching happens only when students learn, and learning happens only when students are properly oriented towards the truth and have, in being so oriented, assimilated some part of it, however small and preliminary the part might be.  We need not be grandiose in our pedagogical expectations to accept Augustine’s point: students need not internalize the whole of the truth, if that is even possible, but they must leave having internalized some of it, having apprehended some fragment, however slight, of reality.  Anything short of that modest standard is not teaching or learning, and any program of study that does not require that its graduates apprehend some degree of the truth is wholly fraudulent; indeed, any school, whatever the level, that does not insist that every single one of its teachers in every single one of their classes teaches something genuinely true is a sham.  Though it may not be openly admitted, such shams are not altogether rare.

There is a different but similar activity, often confused for teaching, by which students are taken, perhaps through “some personal magnetism or verbal magic”, somewhere other than the truth.  Supposed teachers, including ones with advanced degrees from prestigious colleges and universities, are not incapable of error, confusion, misunderstanding, or even willful trickery.  Professional teachers can make mistakes, and those mistakes might be accepted by students as if they were true.  Students can receive false opinions from their supposed teachers.  Worse yet, students might internalize some apparent argument about the falsehoods they hear, believing those errors to have been rightly demonstrated.  Of course, errors cannot be demonstrated, unless we mean that their falsehood can be demonstrated through refutation.  Nonetheless, the acceptance of an apparent but false demonstration functions to justify belief in the error, which justification is tragic, but not uncommon, especially in colleges and universities.  If the supposed teachers are themselves convinced of the errors being advanced, the students who accept the supposed demonstrations will likely test very well when asked about these errors at the end of semester, ostensibly confirming their supposed learning, but merely reinforcing the errors.

Students who can articulate the reasons that they are told support the falsehoods they have come to accept lack understanding.  Understanding is always of what is, whereas error treats what is not as if it is.  One can understand that an error is erroneous, but one who accepts the error as true simply cannot be said to understand.  Nonetheless, the cognition by which a falsehood is accepted as true bears some, albeit corrupted, similarity to understanding; it no doubts “feels” like understanding to the person experiencing it.  Arguments in favor of falsehood can be sophisticated and seem to the hearer to be very compelling.  Such arguments may even be valid, which is to say their conclusions might follow necessarily from their premises.  Valid arguments can persuade, even when they are utterly false.  Arguments in defense of errors, however, can never be sound: even if they are valid, they cannot, by definition, be true.  If we start with falsehood and apply good logic, we end up with ostensibly compelling conclusions that are just as false as, if not more false than, the premises with which we began.  Appropriating clever arguments to defend erroneous propositions cannot be learning and, thus, the supposed teacher’s efforts cannot be genuine teaching.  Unless it happens to be a mindless proliferation of error, such false teaching is pure rhetoric, not dissimilar to what the sophists practiced in Socrates’ and Plato’s day.[6]

Reaching the Student

If teaching requires an inner transformation of the student towards the truth, then the teacher must reach the individual student.  Pieper continues: “Teaching therefore presupposes that the hearer is sought out where he is to be found.  Thus teaching implies proceeding from the existing position and disposition of the hearer.”[7]  For the student to be taught, the teacher must speak to the student on his own terms while also speaking in the terms of truth.  The teacher is a mediator of sorts, bridging the gap between the particular student, who is by definition without knowledge, and the universal truth, knowledge of which is the ultimate goal of learning.  The teacher is a translator and interpreter, making the universal accessible to the individual human being who stands to benefit from learning about it.

For students to learn, the teacher must speak to them as they are, not at them as they would be in a different, and possibly more pedagogically convenient, world – presumably one in which the teacher does not have to work very hard to get the students to learn.  Do I wish my students were more literate?  Would I prefer that their attentions were less divided?  Would it be easier for me if they were not tethered to their mobile devices or did not spend their evenings playing video games instead of preparing for class?  Of course, but the humans who present themselves to me for the sake of learning happen to not read, write, or think as well as I would like.  I might yet help them become more literate, focused, and intellectually self-reliant, as well as less dependent on technology, but I can only do so if I meet them where they are, which is what Pieper means when he says that the teacher must consider the “existing position and disposition” of the student.  I need not speak to each student’s idiosyncrasies – nor could I, especially when teaching dozens at a time.  Nonetheless, I can speak to them where they stand, as human persons living in the world here and now with specific deficiencies, unique challenges, as well as some laudable strengths; it is these people, not others, who come to me to learn.

False teachers often seem to be better at meeting their pupils where they stand than are genuine teachers, seemingly knowing that addressing students on their own terms is the only way to lead them somewhere, even if the destination is untrue.  This is not, however, surprising, as one of the main methods of false teaching is flattery or pandering.  False teaching is, at core, sophistical.  Like the sophist described by Socrates in Book 6 of the Republic, the false teacher feeds the existing appetites of the crowd of students in front of him.  As Socrates puts it, after having studied the opinions and tastes of the crowd, presuming this to be wisdom, the sophist turns to teaching, telling the crowd what it wants to hear, “calling what delights it good and what annoys it bad.”[8]  The sophist is a false teacher, and the false teacher, a sophist, telling students what they want to hear.  Of course, the flattering teacher does not gratify students from a misguided sense of altruism, to please and assuage others for their sake; he does it to gain an advantage for himself.  The ulterior motive is essential: to flatter is not only to compliment or please through words; it is doing so to one’s own benefit.  As Pieper puts in in Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, when flattering someone “I address the other not simply to please him or to tell him something true.  Rather, what I say to him is designed to get something from him! (…) The other, whom I try to influence with what he likes to hear, ceases to be my partner; he is no longer a fellow subject.  Rather, he has become for me an object to be manipulated, possibly to be dominated, to be handled and controlled.”[9]

Hence the obvious question: how can students be reached, without flattery, in order to be guided to the truth and away from falsehoods, especially from those to which they might be otherwise exposed or that have already taken hold of them?  I don’t presume there is a simple answer to this question, let alone one that I could present briefly and conclusively in what follows, but let me venture a sketch of a partial answer, borrowed in good part from Plato: through good stories.

Plato, The Storyteller

Anyone who has read Plato’s dialogues knows that they are filled with stories.[10]  Not only do characters refer to traditional myth often, Socrates tells several myths of his own design, often bearing only slight resemblance to traditional Greek myths, like the eschatological myths in the Republic, Gorgias, and Phaedo, and the myth about the invention of writing in the Phaedrus.[11]  There are also the wonderful and vivid similes Socrates uses: education is like a cave dwelling with prisoners watching shadows; the soul is like a winged chariot; a depraved soul is like a leaky bucket.[12]  The latter may not be myths properly speaking, but they are stories of a sort, adumbrating some philosophical topic indirectly through the use of narrative and image.

But the dialogues do not merely contain stories; they are stories.  The dialogues are philosophical dramas, not treatises.  In each case, Plato tells a story, whether and to whatever extent his characters do.  This dimension is in some cases highlighted by framing the main dialogue inside of another dialogue.  In such cases, the philosophical discussion is recollected as a story by someone who either participated in the discussion, like the Republic, witnessed the main discussion, like the Phaedo, or heard about it.  Consider the Symposium as a case of the latter.[13]  Some unnamed businessman friend asks Apollodorus to tell him about the story of Socrates’ attendance at Agathon’s drinking party when they talked about love.  The story has been recently rehearsed, as some Glaucon (who may or may not be Plato’s brother) asked about it just the other day; this Glaucon heard about it from Phoenix, who was not there, and was hoping for clarification from Apollodorus.  Apollodorus, however, was not there either; he too only heard the story.  But he at least heard it from the person who also told Phoenix about it, namely Aristodemus, who was there, though silent.  Apollodorus then asked Socrates to verify or correct some details of the story, which Apollodorus takes as sufficient ground to now tell the story more or less authoritatively, first to Glaucon, then to the unnamed businessman.  Despite being somewhat convoluted, the frame makes the point clearly: the Symposium is a story within a story recollected by people who were not there to experience the events the story presumes to represent, but for whom those events communicate something profound and meaningful enough to recollect and retell repeatedly.  The dialogue is a complex narrative, not reportage – and certainly not a treatise.

Two Platonic Propositions

Let me approach this issue by considering, albeit briefly, two Platonic propositions about teaching drawn from several dialogues, but, in what follows, addressed with respect to the Republic.

First proposition: stories are pedagogical, which also means that storytellers are teachers of a sort.  This is the basic message of Books 2 and 3 of the Republic, where Socrates famously censors the poets and the storytellers, those who tell children the stories, who, shall we say, teach.  He does not censor stories because he hates poetry or because stories are stupid; he does so because they are powerfully pedagogical.  Because they are instruments of education, what the stories teach matters immensely.  If one wants good education, one must start, Socrates argues, with good stories, ones that are true, beautiful, and good – or at least point to the true, the beautiful, and the good.  This is why, for instance, he outlaws stories that represent the gods as mutable.[14]  If there are gods, they must be perfect; if they are perfect, they cannot change, as there is nothing better to change into and perfect beings would not debase themselves by taking on a less perfect form.  Stories about changing gods are untrue, because they misrepresent the gods, and are bad, because they incline the youth to believe in gods that are imperfect.  Although the myths do not explicitly define the nature of divinity, they implicitly misrepresent divine things; they advance falsehood, whereby obstructing apprehension of the true account of divinity.  Good myths prepare the mind for eventual understanding of the divine nature.

Second proposition: teaching works on the soul; it forms it.  Teaching does not fill the mind with bits of information[15]; teaching guides the soul[16], takes it somewhere other than where it is to start.  This is clearly one of the main points of the cave allegory from Book 7 of the Republic, an image, as Socrates puts it, about human nature with respect to education and its lack.[17]  The allegory is well known, but let me summarize nonetheless.  Imagine prisoners who are shackled at the bottom of a cave.  Behind them is a fire that casts a relatively dim light on the cave wall.  In front of the fire is a stage on which are presented wood carvings that are copies of the real things that exist outside of the cave; the carvings thus cast shadows on the wall of the cave, which shadows the prisoners perceive as real things.  Imagine next a prisoner being freed from his shackles, turned away from the particularities of his shadow experience and then forced up out of the cave to eventually apprehend the real things, and, in so apprehending, also come to realize that what he had hitherto experienced was nothing but images of images of real things.  Previously, the prisoner had been educated in a sense; his soul was turned towards the shadows and thus appropriated those images as if they were the whole of truth.  But the true education he receives after being liberated moves his soul from confused opinion to knowledge of real things.  This is all to say that when it happens, teaching is literally transformative; it changes the soul.  This is also why Socrates repeatedly warns his young friends against mindlessly associating with the famous teachers du jour.  “Be more careful with your soul,” he seems to say – over and again.  We would all do well to heed Socrates’ advice, and recall that nonsense is no less nonsensical for being fashionable.

Let me bring these two propositions together: stories transform and guide the soul.  Let me push this a little further: a story is not just another tool in the pedagogical toolbox; stories, and images more generally, are often the starting point of education, whether good or bad.  Socrates uses images to start his interlocutors off on the right path.  As we just saw, Plato’s supposed theory of education is contained in an allegory, an image, a story of sorts that tells the interlocutors that the stories they have hitherto known direct them away from truth; thus, it is a story that may begin them on a path upwards towards apprehension of the truth, including the true proposition that what they currently take to be true is not so.

Many of the most sophisticated lessons in Plato’s dialogues are presented in a story or image: Plato’s supposed metaphysics is presented in an image of a divided line, an image that indicates that images are not only the lowest form of cognition, but are the starting point of a cognitive ascension towards the highest things; the supposed theory of soul is presented in many stories, but most poignantly in a myth about the soul as a winged chariot with two winged horses, one noble, one base; the theory of the Good is presented on analogy with the sun etc.[18]  Indeed, and to repeat, all of Plato’s philosophy is presented in stories, namely in the dialogues themselves.

My point is that the story or image is designed for the learner, directing the particular person towards to truth; such teaching proceeds from, to use Pieper’s turn of phrase again, “the existing position and disposition of the hearer”.  I see myself in the particularities of the story, but if the story is undergirded by the truth, I also, however implicitly, begin to orient myself towards that truth.  The story mediates the particular and the universal.  Of course, not all stories will do, but genuine teachers might do well by beginning with good stories, like Plato’s dialogues, to reach their students on their own terms so as to direct them towards the truth.  This might be why James Schall sometimes joked that, as he aged, he wondered whether he should only ever teach Plato.  This may go too far, but Father Schall’s intuition is wise: start them off on the right path by drawing them in with a good story.

Concluding

It is not uninteresting that Plato, in the Phaedrus, represents his sophistical opponents as clever intellectuals who eschew stories because myth is either irrational science or bad history.  The task of the scholar is, accordingly, to rationalize away the mythic elements of the story.  If the story is but bad history or science, then we can do away with stories altogether, replacing them with good history or science.  But myth is not science or history; it is myth, which in its own right tells us something meaningful, albeit preliminary, about the way things are.  This is roughly what Socrates tells Phaedrus when the latter reveals that, like the clever scholars, he does not take myths seriously.[19]  In contrast, Socrates claims to believe in myth, which belief makes him out of place with respect to the intellectuals in Athens, the very ones who have influenced Phaedrus to disbelieve myth.  Socrates believes in myth because stories can teach us something, specifically about ourselves and divine things.  Aristotle makes a similar point when he claims that poetry is more philosophical than is history.[20]  History only speaks about particulars, which can be correct or not, but cannot be true since truth is universal.  In contrast, poetry, including myth, speaks in universals; the elements of the story are typological and, thus, universal, not historical and particular.  Of course, types can be false, and so myth can also be false, but, in its form, myth addresses the universal, including, above all, the universal condition of human being.

Directing the soul can be genuine or false, good or bad.  Just as we need true opinions not false ones, we need good stories, not just any stories.  All students, and any good teacher is always also a student, should ask themselves a critical question; it is the one Socrates asks his friend Phaedrus when they meet at the beginning of the Phaedrus.[21]  I am very fond of Phaedrus.  He reminds me of almost every single earnest undergraduate student I have ever met.  He wants to know, but does not yet; he is a lover of speeches, but lacks the ability to discriminate between good ones and nonsense; he loves learning so much he associates with all sorts of supposed teachers, including the darn sophists going around Athens espousing relativism and religious irreverence – thankfully, he knows well enough to associate with Socrates, too.  Here is the question, both simple and profound: where have you been and where are you going?  Teachers must have some sense of where students have been in order to help them get to where they should be going.  Good stories can begin students on the right path, reorienting them away from where they have thus far been and redirecting them towards the true, the beautiful, and the good.  Anecdotal though it may, I have some evidence to suggest that this pedagogy works – indeed, it works splendidly.

 

Notes

[1] Some of the ideas in this article were addressed in “Professors Don’t Teach If Students Don’t Learn the Truth,” Crisis Magazine, April 12, 2019.

[2] Josef Pieper, Guide to Saint Thomas, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), p 32.

[3] Augustine, Against the Academicians and the Teacher, translated by Peter King (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1995), 14.45, p. 145.

[4] Pieper, Guide, p. 32.

[5] Augustine, The Teacher, 14.45, p. 145.

[6] Almost all of Plato’s dialogues could be listed here, but perhaps the best example of pure rhetoric being justified, however badly, and enacted, however grotesquely, is the Gorgias.

[7] Pieper, Guide, p. 32.

[8] Plato, Republic, translated by Joe Sachs (Newbury Point, MA: Focus Publishing, 2007), 493c.

[9] Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, translated by Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), pp. 21-22.

[10] See Josef Pieper, The Platonic Myths, translated by Dan Farrelly (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011).

[11] See Plato, Republic, 614b-621d.; Plato, Gorgias in Plato’s Gorgias and Aristotle’s Rhetoric, translated by Joe Sachs (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2009), 523a-527e.; Plato, Phaedo, translated by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 1998), 107d-115a.; and Plato, Phaedrus, translated by Steven Scully (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2003), 274d-275b.

[12] See Republic, 514a; Phaedrus, 246a; and Gorgias, 493c.

[13] See Plato, Symposium or Drinking Party, translated by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2017), 172a-174a.

[14] Republic 380d-383c.

[15] This positon is refuted in the Theaetetus and rejected comically in the Symposium.  See Plato, Theaetetus, translated by Joe Sachs (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2004), 196d-200c; and Symposium, 175c-e.

[16] See Phaedrus 261a.

[17] See Republic 514a-518d.

[18] See Republic , 509d-511e; Phaedrus 246a-257b; and Republic 506d-509c.

[19] Phaedrus, 229c-230a.

[20] Aristotle, Poetics, translated by Richard Janko (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 1452b.

[21] Phaedrus, 227a.

Edvard Lorkovic

Edvard Lorkovic is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Department Chair of Humanities at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada. His teaching and research focus on moral issues in ancient and late modern philosophy.

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