Portretfoto Jan Bransen
Portretfoto Jan Bransen

Column Jan Bransen: Ignorance as an intellectual virtue

The central theme of the Education Days 2023 was Teaching today for tomorrow, which was viewed from four distinct perspectives, of which one was a tad provocatively called ‘the eternal student’. Provocative because in doing so, the organisation had the lifelong learning lecturer in mind. A topic that is right up my street. It is no surprise that I was happy when my keynote was programmed in line with this topic.

During my keynote, I explored the idea that Socrates can be called the ideal teacher, even though he never bothered with what is nowadays called the fundamental didactical principle: constructive alignment – the idea that your educational activities, assessments and learning outcomes should align with one another. For Socrates, this is a dubious and unworkable principle because before a certain educational situation arises, no one can specify the learning outcomes and because for Socrates, assessment was nothing more than thinking about the topic together with others.

With the use of two metaphors that have been used for centuries to characterise Socrates’ methods, I made clear why ignorance is an intellectual virtue according to Socrates. The gadfly and the midwife. Socrates is the gadfly that relentlessly annoys you with questions to take you out of your comfort zone. And he does not let go. He keeps coming at you with questions that shake up your assumptions, until all you can do is examine your own perspective. The gadfly if Socrates’ nasty, critical side.

But that is always accompanied by a positive and constructive side. Because Socrates is also a midwife. He is fundamentally convinced that everyone has something valuable to contribute, that everyone carries an essential understanding, an understanding that is worth expressing. With attention, love, and conviction, Socrates will make that effort, to help you articulate your implicit understanding.

What is the thinking tool that Socrates deploys? The question! And better yet, a question that, in the end, you ask yourself. A question about your perspective, your implicit assumptions, about the obviousness that is silently carried in the words you are used to using. I explicitly talked about one trait of this thinking tool: it is about a question that you ask yourself sincerely. That is a lovely paradoxical given, because if you ask yourself a question sincerely, then it is obvious you do not know the answer. But if you are the one asking yourself the question, it is also obvious that you will need to come up with an answer. And that can mean only one thing: you will need to do research yourself. You will have to think.

That is how Socrates solves the motivation problem: make sure that in education it is all about questions that students ask themselves. To do this, you only need a lecturer who is brave enough to ask themselves a question in the presence of students. A lecturer, in other words, who does not have an answer. And who thereby sets a great example.

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