By Nathan Goldman
Modern views of education frequently hold one of two objects as education’s end: the acquisition of knowledge or the acquisition of skills. Perhaps consequently, we most often use the verb “learn” in reference to one of these ends, too: one either learns a fact or learns how to do something. These pervasive views make many students hesitant to admit uncertainty; I, at least, was long hesitant to admit it. After all, uncertainty and confusion betrays a lack—by these views of education, a failure to learn. In high school, I would rarely make claims in class that I couldn’t confidently defend. I was reticent to ask questions when I worried that I should already know the answer. I pursued difficult coursework only in the subjects already in line with my way of thinking and avoided the most challenging levels of subjects—like mathematics, physics, and biology—where I worried I wouldn’t thrive.
St. John’s works hard to assuage this reticence to not know. Right off the bat, it does this by the nature of the all-required Program. Very few students feel equally confident with every subject matter the Program treats. To be sure, many students discover proclivities they wouldn’t have imagined before coming to St. John’s: the pre-St. John’s version of me would be aghast to discover that I chose to write my junior essay on Immanuel Kant’s philosophically dense and abstruse Critique of Pure Reason when I could have chosen to write on Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, or another work of literature. But most of us continue to find that certain subject areas and ways of thinking come more naturally. For example, no matter how much more fascinated by and interested in mathematics and physics I am now than I was three years ago, the subjects still come to me much less easily than, say, translating French or analyzing Gulliver’s Travels. Thus, the Program, by its very construction, forces you to confront questions and problems you may feel ill-equipped to handle.
Furthermore, the curriculum of freshman year repeatedly requires you to grapple with the issue of confusion in the example of Plato’s Socrates. Whether or not you take his claim that he knows only that he knows nothing at face value, it becomes important to ask: What is knowledge? What might be the value in examining the terrain of your own abject ignorance?
These questions come to the fore in considering the notion of aporeia, an Attic Greek term roughly translated as “impasse,” “lack of resource,” or “puzzlement.” The word comes up often in Plato’s early dialogues (which we read in seminar, and some of which we translate in the language tutorial), perhaps most notably in the Meno, where it is used to describe the confounded state in which Meno (Socrates’ interlocutor) is left after Socrates’ pointed questioning reveals that Meno, who thought that he knew just what virtue is, actually has no idea.
What might be the value of such confusion? For Socrates, aporeia is the starting point of investigation. (Depending on what you think the status of knowledge is, it might be the ending point, too.) Distressing, paralyzing confusion, though painful, opens the door to genuine, honest inquiry—which may eventually relieve the confusion, or at least help to fruitfully specify and examine it.
My current reflection on this topic stems from a moment I experienced last week during junior laboratory. The second semester of junior lab is spent investigating the phenomena of electricity and magnetism; the semester ends with a lengthy study of the work of James Clerk Maxwell, a 19th century physicist who develops a mathematical theory to account for electromagnetic phenomena. Maxwell ranks along with Newton and Kant as one of the most difficult thinkers studied in junior year. His work is subtle and complex, and he is, besides being an innovative genius, a profoundly gifted mathematician—all of which explains why we at St. John’s avail ourselves of a few layers of interpretive notes to unpack his dense mathematical and mechanical arguments.
During this lab class, my fellow students and I were having a particularly difficult time unpacking Maxwell’s argument. Briefly summarized, in a paper called “On the Physical Lines of Force,” Maxwell develops a “mechanical hypothesis” to explain magnetic (and, eventually, electric) phenomena by means of spinning vortices—basically, whirlpools. Through this hypothesis and brilliant use of the infinitesimal calculus (better known to most as just “calculus”), he reveals that the resultant force of the different stresses—pressures and tensions—caused by the vortices matches up to the results obtained experimentally with magnets.
My class was focused on following his classification and mathematization of the different forces, which is presented in an extremely complex argument. Even with our tutor’s guidance (and our tutor, though brilliant, is no expert on this material either), we were having a hard time. It’s a great class, full of intelligent, hard-working students, and we had all prepared well and were working hard as a class to understand the text. Still, we were each clearly bewildered.
But toward the end of class, as we were making (tentative) progress, moving forward in and through our confusion, I realized that this experience—feeling abject confusion, but pressing onward unashamedly—was not something I had ever encountered before coming to St. John’s. As a high school student, if I had encountered something as complex, confounding, and apparently uncrackable as Maxwell’s arguments, I would have promptly given it up as hopeless. But now, here I was, privately bewildered and in a room of minds awash in confusion, and we were all soldiering on. The confusion was not stultifying, but rather empowering.
This is a gift that St. John’s has given me: a way to confront aporeia and to continue seeking understanding; to be humbled rather than debilitated by complexity. By the end of the class, we had not left our confusions behind. But we had made progress. Toward the end of the Meno, Socrates admits that he “would not affirm confidently” the arguments he has made, but that he would contend “that by supposing there is need for one to seek that which one does not know, we would be better and braver and less idle than if we should suppose we are neither able to find, nor is there need to seek, that which we do not understand” (86b-c). This is a powerful mode of education, and it isn’t about amassing facts or even developing skills. Rather, it’s about honing a receptivity to bewilderment and the courage to press on into the unknown.
I think this post is a little off. You seem to suggest that St. John’s is some how special with students pushing forward even if they don’t understand. I hate to break it to you, but the vast majority of any college student does not get something right off the bat yet pushes forward. There have always been study groups, and people working to figure things out. I find it interesting that your posts reveals more about yourself than about the school – you found your secondary education as coming natural to you and you are finally challenged. Perhaps the real problem is that no one put you in an environment that challenged you before.
Hi, Jeff! Thanks for reading and for your response. It wasn’t my intention to suggest that only St. John’s students press past confusion, or that a St. John’s education is the only one that challenges students to do this. I certainly was challenged by excellent, demanding teachers in high school, and I admit that much of my reticence to work hard at what didn’t come naturally was a result of my being spoiled.
But I maintain that many educational environments—at least my own, before St. John’s!—in encouraging specialization early on, dissuade students from reaching their full potential in their weakest subject areas. Further, by emphasizing answers and testable practice over understanding and theory (particularly in mathematics and the sciences), many systems de-incentivize really grappling with material, because it makes more sense to have someone explain it to you (not that this is necessarily easy, either!) so you can pass the test and forget it.
I’m sorry that my post suggested that St. John’s is the only place where this sort of learning is happening. That’s definitely not the case. I’m just grateful that St. John’s has helped it happen for me.
Wow, Jeff Peters, way to basically be incredibly rude in response to a fairly interesting perspective. I don’t read it so much as “St. John’s exceptionalism” as just a kind of epiphany of a higher order of learning and being willing or even eager to sit with the discomfort of aporeia. Of course this experience is available to all learners everywhere and I don’t think the writer above is laying claim to it being unique to SJC. I have taught high school literature, music, composition and mathematics for 25 years by the way and the biggest thing I lament is the desire on the part of my students to “get stuff” right away. Aporeia is incredibly uncomfortable for a lot of my students. It seems, actually, for more of my students than when I started teaching in 1987.
Thanks for your thoughts, Peter! I wonder whether the shift you’ve noticed shows a significant re-prioritization in our collective views of what’s important and meaningful in education.