Schumann: The Illusion of Understanding


Blog Contributor

Disclaimer: By no means would I declare or consider myself a scholar of any legitimate caliber, and I promise you finding fault with me is pretty easy. It’s for those reasons exactly that I felt compelled to write this.

I’m sure in some way, shape, or form nearly all of you have heard of the Socratic Method. No, this isn’t a boring rant about the origins of philosophy you missed, but an excellent demonstration to serve an otherwise obvious point.

The Socratic Method is described almost universally as some sort of “ancient discourse” involving a teacher asking a student questions that require generative responses to provoke ‘deeper reflection’ or something similar.

Not only is this completely wrong, missing the purpose entirely, but it’s indicative of far worse than just being a small, ‘harmless’ piece of misinformation.

The Socratic method is a methodical approach to demonstrating the lack of one’s knowledge (or to rearrange one’s conception of a certain assertion), making its appearance for this distinction totally ironic, on purpose.

The ‘Socrates’ role asks the ‘pupil’ for a thesis, proceeds to question him on a number of assumptions that he agrees to, then masterfully demonstrates through dialogue how the pupil undermines his own thesis through these assumptions.

How do you know that?

Simple, I read a little Plato. Not a lot. Also, I’ve taken a Philosophy class. It didn’t help.

So why is it everywhere I look for clarification on the Socratic Method (including and ESPECIALLY) academic instructions describe it as “a challenging discourse,” or some other equal combination of empty nouns?

Maybe you don’t understand it as well as you think.

Absolutely possible. I’m totally in agreement with that except for the fact that the simple explanation floating everywhere is so utterly ignorant there’s no indication that most of these places advertising “Socratic Discourse” and the benefits it has on their Law Curriculum have actually ever even attempted to read what they advertise they offer. Had they read it, they surely would have come to the conclusion that the way they describe this method is completely inadequate.

The point isn’t that they read it, the point is you never would have noticed this unless you were intimately familiar with Plato’s dialogues. Your immediate thought would be, “Wow, that sounds intense,” unaware of the fact that they don’t even know that they don’t know what such an idea means.

But I bet they think they do. Not a single source advertising or explaining the method in this practical context was the result of some lonely blogger trying to inform what you missed in Philosophy 101 class Wednesday.

These were academic sites that didn’t bother fact-checking as these sources travelled through multiple hands to be published.

So what’s the big deal?

Conceptual typos of this nature aren’t a big deal at all. But the mindset that allows such an event to occur, that’s dangerous.

We all suffer these delusions of understanding; I’d never claim to be better than anyone else in that respect. But let’s get something straight: airlifting sentences out of Wikipedia for a term paper and pointing to one’s academic standing are not indicative of understanding.

These accoutrements are merely trappings of intelligence, like my bookshelf full of Sarte that I have a total inability to explain to you.

Yeah, bad faith is like ahh acting like someone you’re not or something. It’s hard to explain… You want a beer?

The goal here isn’t to attack those who claim to be subject matter experts or to bash those that advertise their academic prowess, but merely to demonstrate the limits of understanding and the impression of understanding by being able to regurgitate the first associate that comes to mind for a given phrase/word.

What’s all this hatred directed at?

Well, directing it inwardly has no positive benefit, so let’s aim it right on a valuable target to clarify the issue further.

How can an example like the above exist and go unchecked?

Before my lifetime, such a culture existed that posited the idea of “no wrong answers, only wrong questions” (much of this has since carried over)

Those raised and educated since this perspective change (with such perspectives being delivered from someone as a represented source of authority) internalize and live according to this belief. (Let’s assume, for sake of argument)

Add grade inflation into the equation and the utter lack of rigor applied to general/survey of/101 courses and end result is a student with an A, without the knowledge worthy of such a description.

So what’s the big deal?

You think after such an experience Joe Blow thought “Shit, I didn’t deserve that A. I should go back over and learn that material.

Not a chance.

Comprehension was never the goal, delivering “what the teacher wants” was the goal. If the teacher described the Socratic Method as “a way for old guys to make young guys think about stuff” and you provided the definition above, you’d fail (assuming he actually read it).

End result: Blow gets the trappings of understanding by doing exactly the opposite, teacher gets the impression they “taught,” everyone feels good and no one is the wiser.

This doesn’t seem like a big deal until years later and Mr. Blow’s academic career progresses and he’s now teaching classes at a top law school, describing how he uses the “Socratic Method” to teach his students.

So what? He’s misinformed about Greek history. Whatever.

True. But what else is he misinformed about? What else doesn’t he know that he doesn’t understand but has every reason by virtue of a system that encourages such behavior to believe he understands? I damn sure don’t know, and he probably doesn’t either.

As time goes on and he continues teaching, he’ll continue to reinforce the impression that he fully understands (and even considers himself a subject matter expert) just by the fact that he teaches the class. (Another trapping of knowledge)

He earned it, right? Earned in this sense literally meaning: learned the necessary subject material at a different time, and demonstrated understanding in a manner subjectively approved by those who went through the same exact system.

Lets say he’s tenured. What now? Is anyone keeping up on him and a million other equivalent teachers? Making sure they know the current information? Making sure they fully comprehend the subject material?

Yeah, they’ve got a curriculum for that.

Thank god. Wait, who writes that?

Say he’s been teaching for 15 years. You think he’s been following up on changes in civil law/philosophy/thermodynamics/tribology/whatever and how it effects the material he’s been teaching regularly for the last 15 years?

What about the very likely possibility he’s still regurgitating the same old lecture notes from his moleskin from the 80’s?

I’ve been teaching this class for 15 years now.

I bet it gets easier every year.

Anyway, these are just the basics.

How do you know these are ‘just the basics’? Who have you asked?

Eager student: “Hey, Professor Blow. Can you help me understand civil law?

Sure can. Man, I loved that class, I got an A+ when I took it way back in the day.

Uh huh.

Going back to the Socratic Method question, say there’s a paper due in a theoretical class on ‘explaining the Socratic method.’

At this point, everything the kids know is what’s been plopped on Professor Whatever’s power point slides dating back 10 years. One of the kids (call him Tim) has an insight, and instead of reiterating Prof Whatevers vacuous attempt at a summary on the slides, he proposes a different solution: citing something along the lines of … the Socratic Method was an attempt to teach his pupils how to effectively poke holes in the argument and avoid fallacious reasoning from even the most assertive, self-proclaimed experts. Ok, great answer. But, not many sources to site.

So, what happens?

Student ‘Tim’ ends up with a C, despite having the most complex, analytical perspective on a subject that is analytical by it’s very nature.

While on the other side, Student “Beer-Brain” airlifts a few Wikipedia sentences, uses a thesaurus to re- write the Prof’s summary slides, litters the paper full of fluffy, useless filler crap like “for all intents and purposes” and “it’s my opinion that,” asks for an extension cause his Grandmother died for the third time, bothers the professor with questions like “but it’s a philosophy class, why are you criticizing my writing?,” and has his Corporate Dad call the school… He ends up with a B+.

Meanwhile, student Tim comes back to ask the professor for feedback on how to improve and deliver his ideas in the best manner possible, with a genuine impetus to improve.

What then? It gets worse.

Given that they’re educators, they should be encouraging creative talent with a student like this, on desire and method of pursuit alone.

What’s the end result? Tim is discouraged from thinking in a certain manner and is forced to resort to the same copypasta nonsense as few-crayons-short-beer- brain, just to get the grade.

So what would the professor say?

Tim, it’s a good idea, but you missed the major points we discussed.”\

Tim asks how he can improve.

You’ve got to apply yourself.

You idiot. The system is broke. You fucking broke it.

Maybe this whole rant is wrong. Maybe I’m totally mistaken about this whole concept, I’m aware that’s a very real possibility.
But I’m very afraid that I’m not.

But… Are those responsible for educating you, your family, your children aware of what they might be doing? Of what they might only have an illusion of understanding?

I’m willing to bet many of them are way more sure of themselves then they deserve.

Check your experts.

Footnotes: There are multiple sources that fully understand and explain the Socratic method in complete and total detail and examine and break down the process in a mechanical manner. These are not the ones I’m referring to, the discussion of the Socratic Method was only for demonstrative purposes, and was chosen simply by random availability. If your first reaction to reading this was: “This idiot is looking at all the wrong places,” you’ve missed the point entirely, and trying to discredit me protects the very system that propagates this type of nonsense from change. Always direct your argument at the argument, never the individual. It’s an American habit of “trying to make the guy look bad,” but it is utterly irrelevant. That type of seething narcissism serves no purpose whatsoever. Like the disclaimer at the top, there’s plenty of crap you can use to discredit me, but that’s a poor attempt at trying to destroy an argument. I’m a firm believer in posting articles of this type anonymously for that single purpose. This would leave the individual out of the equation, leaving the reader to focus only on the words. When an individual gets added to the equation, the entire dynamic changes. Naturally, I’m the worst kind of narcissist and love the conditional praise for slapping on my keyboard, so there’s my name at the top. Hey, know thy enemy, right?


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