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The Knowing Soul

■Great Books
■St. John’s College
■Jacob Klein
■Liberal Learning

by Jacob Klein

The great vehicle of liberal learning is discussion, in which begetting, questioning, refuting, and again questioning take place…

Jacob Klein leading seminar

What I have to speak about, briefly and in a most elementary way, is what both learning and teaching mean and do not mean. Learning and teaching are mysterious processes. To understand them fully would mean to discover the secret of our lives. For we are, perhaps above anything else, learning and teaching animals. I hope we all agree that teaching does not consist in telling and insisting, nor learning in listening and repeating. The image of the learner’s soul is not an empty pitcher into which the teacher pours the fluid of knowledge. This picture of teaching and learning, by the way, however wrong, is ineradicable.

There are perhaps two ways of describing teaching and learning in an appropriate manner. The one is that of begetting and conceiving. The word of the teacher acts as the form which in-forms the material of the learner’s soul, in-forms the capability this soul has, and trans-forms it into a knowing soul. This is, on the whole, the Aristotelian view. The process of learning and teaching is a generative one, and a great deal depends not only on the activity and effectiveness on the teacher’s word but also on the receptivity and potentiality of the learner’s soul. The other way of describing teaching and learning is that of eliciting answers and gaining insight from within. Through questioning and arguing the teacher compels the learner to pull out of himself, as it were, something slumbering in him at all times. This is, on the whole, the Socratic and Platonic view. Here again a lot depends on the quality of the teacher’s questions and on the quality of the learner’s soul. But just as questioning has its place in the Aristotelian scheme, begetting is an important element in Socrates’ practice. Learning from books, by images, through associations, and whatever other ways of learning may be mentioned, falls easily into the patterns of those two fundamental views. I doubt whether modern psychologies of learning have added anything to them.

It is perhaps not unimportant to note that the role of the teacher who engages in questioning cannot simply be identified with the role of “midwife” that the teacher has occasionally to assume. This “midwife” image, mentioned in only one of the Platonic dialogues, in the Theaetetus and nowhere else, is a tricky one. The midwife, the maia, delivers women of children that have been fathered, and the teacher is a “midwife” only when he delivers learner’s souls of opinions, mostly wrong ones, “fathered” by others. Truth, according to Plato, has no father.

At any rate, a program of liberal education implies teaching both as begetting and eliciting, in fact, more the latter than the former. The great vehicle of learning is discussion in which begetting, questioning, refuting, and again questioning take place. This is not to say that all drudgery, all routine work is eliminated. The learning process requires that too. But it is not the pivot on which failure or success depends. How to gauge whether learning has actually occurred is extremely difficult. For what has been formed in the learner’s soul or what insights have been re-awakened in him depends on factors often totally unknown to the teacher. Both learner and teacher are members of a learning community. Inasmuch as this learning community is an institutionalized one, it is bound to fall short of its goal. All the institution can do is set the conditions for learning. This in itself is an immense task. Learning under these conditions does not consist in “mastering” a body of knowledge. The conditions merely provide the horizon in which fruitful learning can take place. The conditions determine the existence of a “school.”

Books on liberal learning may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This is an excerpt from a lecture given in March 1965 and was published in Jacob Klein: Lectures and Essays.
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Published: Jan 13, 2017
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Jacob Klein
Jacob Klein
Jacob Klein (1899 – 1978) came to St. John’s College, Annapolis, in 1938, and remained a Tutor there until his death. He served as Dean from 1949 to 1958. He was author of three books: Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra, A Commentary on Plato’s Meno, and Plato’s Trilogy: Theaetetus, the Sophist, and the Statesman. A selection of his lectures and essays have been published in Jacob Klein: Lectures and Essays.
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