50 years and counting – Xenophanes, my hero

In the broadest sense of the word, “skepticism” had been part of the tradition in Greek philosophy. Xenophanes had taught that, although we can always learn  more than we know, we can never be sure that we have reached the final truth. 

Socrates said that the only idea he knew was that he did not know anything.  Socrates did believe that knowledge was possible, and what is more, he was motivated about learning and the pursuit of truth – he was probably a supporter of life-long learning!

On the other hand, Xenophanes believed that we could lessen the degree of our ignorance if we made the effort.  Both men favored a positive attitude towards inquiry and the possibility of learning.  Let us strive to instill this attitude in the hearts and minds of those we encounter in the educational arena.

In my over 50 years in the field of education as primarily an instructor, I have come to understand a few “truths” (15 and counting) about learning:

  1. The Romans had it right: “Mens Sana in Corpore Sana” – a sound mind in a sound body.

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts” – Marcus Aurelius


  1. We need to learn how to unlearn. Millions of assumptions and truths are woven into the fabric of our culture and carried on by institutions, social forms, and in our language.  We are land-locked and conditioned by our own thoughts and feelings. The ramblings of our subconscious gossip and the linear workings of our rational minds strive for our attention.

“Everything we hear is more opinion than fact, and everything we see is more perception than truth.”  Marcus Aurelius


  1. Learning is gradual process, slowly push back the horizons of ignorance and prejudices in all of their ugly manifestations and expressions so as to pursue the truth.

“To understand truth one must have a very sharp, precise, clear mind; not a cunning mind, but a mind that is capable of looking without any distortion, a mind innocent and vulnerable. Only such a mind can see what truth is. Nor can a mind that is filled with knowledge perceive what truth is; only a mind that is completely capable of learning can do that.  Learning is not the accumulation of knowledge. Learning is from moment to moment.” – J.Krishnamurti


  1. Learning can be fearful for it is a departure from the known.

“To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is disease.” – Lao Tzu


  1. The internet has billions of pieces of information, however, this is information and it is not knowledge, understanding, or wisdom. Classrooms are adorned with the latest technological capabilities, whatever happened to the chalk and blackboards where learning took flight and minds soared.  I think I am a cross between “Good-bye Mr. Chips and Dead Poets Society.”

“Yet teaching nowadays is becoming technology. Teachers are cautious about substance. They are cautious about truth.”   M.C. Richards


  1. John Dewey in 1910 said it best: “we learn by doing.” Yes, let us strive to connect learning to life.


  1. Why is it we are rewarded for the “right” answer but not for the corrections we make?  We are punished for the corrections which we call “mistakes.” Rather, see life as one big mistake and make the corrections.


  1. To learn is to change – education is the process that changes the learner and the instructor/facilitator.

A sage went bathing in the lake and almost drowned. When he cried for help, another swimmer came to his rescue.  As he was helped out of the water he took a solemn oath: “I swear never to go into the water again until I learn how to swim!”


  1. Knowledge is interrelated; find the patterns that connect; broken patterns, learning in silos destroys the essence and quality of learning.

“Without an integrated understanding of life, our individual and collective problems will only deepen and extend. The purpose of education is not to produce mere scholars, technicians, and job hunters, but integrated men and women who are free of fear; for only between such human beings can there be enduring peace.” – J. Krishnamurti


  1. Plutarch writes, “education is not filling a bucket with water, rather, it is lighting a fire within.” Do I teach with Passion — or what do I Pass On?


  1. About every 10 years, educational trends and fads will reappear cleverly disguised by a fancy or catchy title or promoted by educators returning from an educational conference in California or Texas because they know more than we do or the featured speaker is nationally renowned. We travel great distances at great expense when the truth we are seeking is buried within our own back yard. Let us take time and encourage one another to share our best practices before we fly great distances.

“What we can best learn from good teachers is how to teach ourselves better” – John Holt



  1. We should be educating the whole human being, such as holistic education

“Education helps us to get soul and body and spirit together.  The way we learn math affects our moral sense. The way we understand geography affects our judgment.  The ordeals of earthly life are a school in which we may develop consciousness and self-knowledge and become transparent to our neighbors.  The transmutations of this schooling through the ages will create new qualities of freedom and of love.” M.C. Richards


  1. In every class I have had, there are three groups: one group is highly motivated and will do well regardless of the instructor, one group observes and weighs whether they should invest the energy, and one group takes up space and at the end of the semester will say, “I did not learn anything.”

The following are comments from students representative of the three groups:

The first one/third ( estimated 30% )are highly motivated and will do well and their motivation is fueled by the passion and positive attitude of the instructor; here are some optional student testimonies for you to draw your own conclusions:

“ You go beyond teaching, you live by what you teach. You were able to push me to really think, and understand people. I appreciated your class so much and I’m glad I took it. Yourself as a person is someone to be admired. You set a good example of what a good person should be, it’s hard to find people like that today. I just wanted to send this message to thank you.”

The second one/third ( estimated 60%) are skeptical at first and reserving their judgment before they begin to expand their horizons, become more interested, and begin to blend with the first third – here are some of their optional testimonies:

“This course is honestly having more of an effect on me than I had predicted. I was thinking it might end up being a lot of useless information that I would have to just get through. However, I find the material to be much more relevant and useful than I had at first supposed.”


The  third one/third ( estimated 10%) are skeptical from the beginning, maintain their skepticism, claim they have not benefited much from the class nor were they motivated; and they tend to blame the teacher

“I believe that making this class a requirement is for the most part unnecessary; I must admit that I have not learned that much useful information.”


14.  After week 3, I could give out the grades with about a 95% accuracy; students quickly establish a level of performance by then; many are like water, they seek the least level of resistance. Unfortunately, many of the students I encounter have been conditioned to be passive learners from K – 12.  What if you and I were asked in grade school, ‘How are you smart? Instead of ‘How smart are you? If we can motivate and guide students to become more active learners and participate more consciously and fully in the learning experience,  grades will then be reflective of this dynamic process.


15. We have become helicopter educators, hoovering about our students and showering them and enabling them with multiple services lest they stumble and fall.  Whatever happened to manure which is stinky and necessary for growth. Let us  be compassionate tempered by constraint, and let us be supportive without enabling the students whom we accompany on their academic and career journeys.

“We need to be aware of the now- or- never pressures which is one of the worst tyrannies of the educational systems; it denies us the freedom to experiment, to fail, to turn back, to begin again — if necessary, to start a second career, to launch a new life.” Theodore Roszack


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