On Being Wrong

Socrates utilized probing questions to induce thinking in his students. He used the spoken word and his ingenuity as his core lesson plan. With the advent of Christianity, monks became the conveyors of knowledge. Then, Johann Gutenberg invented the first printing press, and with his invention, the written word spread quickly across Europe. European history textbooks tout Gutenberg’s invention as a critical historical factor in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread quickly throughout Europe because of this invention. Interestingly, John Wycliff had written in the same vein as Luther a generation before; why is he not the central figure of the Protestant Reformation? Well, he never got published. He did not have the wonders of blogs to disseminate his ideas to the masses.

When I taught the Protestant Reformation last year, I used a world history textbook. This text, claimed through its title, to be a history of the world. My students and I discussed what, exactly this means. What is left out, and what is included? We used this video that charts all of the Wikipedia articles, both by geographic location and historic date in less than two minutes to guide our discussion. Each “blip of light” is an article, and you can “see” the historic knowledge of our generation. We acknowledged the uncertain utility of Wikipedia and the dilemma with citing it in the “anyone can edit it” phenomena. However, we found that Wikipedia, is ironically, one of the least biased sources as you can publish in any language from any country–what publishing company can say that?

So back to my world history textbook. It was wrong. Gutenberg was not the first to invent a printing press. It took one, quiet, international girl to have the opportunity to research any non-western, 50-year-old topic, (my parameters) for National History Day to teach me about how I, the textbook, and Western civilization had it wrong. The Koreans invented the first printing press. Check out the website she made here.

As teachers, by definition, we are purveyors of knowledge, through our intellect and our ability to ask probing questions. Socrates did not quite fit this definition; the Socratic method is still utilized famously in law school because it fosters independent thinking, not because it necessarily spreads or shares knowledge.  The monks limited study to the ecclesiastical world; nobles sent their sons to be tutored in monasteries in the Middle Ages. Knowledge was a commodity. Traditional western pedagogy then took a form of even more rigor and discipline at schools like Eaton and Oxford.  In America, and specifically New England, we inherited the legacy of puritanical schools for boys. While my synopsis of western education is trite and grossly oversimplified, in our educational model inherited from the monastic tradition, the teacher is the grand, even sacred, purveyor of knowledge.  The information a traditional teacher is expected to know is awesome in scope.

I think, as many others would argue and have argued, education and the world has been revolutionized by the internet. Thomas Friedman’s “world is flat theory” via fiber-optic cable is a wonderful analysis, but it does not quite address the role of tradition in this new, flattened landscape. In the academic realm, change is slow. Stodgy, old professors who tout grammar and ancient languages are resistant to change. They are not trend setters. Boarding schools cater to college, we are in name, “college preparatory institutes” as such, the logic follows, prep schools are punctuated with tradition. However, I think the phrase “independent” boarding schools is important to note. This independence allows the exercise and experimentation of various forms of pedagogy.

I was asked a question by a student today in class and I was wrong. This litany on education and the shifts were inspired by my error, and is perhaps my coping method with being wrong. To top it off, I was being observed  by the chair of my department. My typical response to a question I do not know the answer to in the age of technology when they are on their computers/smart phones already is “use the resources available to you–google it”. However, as I had just asked the class to close their computers, for some good, old-fashioned, not type-set discussion, my typical response would have been nonsensical. I said, “I am not sure”. Fatal last words.  As I continue to lead the class I was struck with questions steeped with my insecurities as a young teacher: “Did I just lose all credibility?”, “Will I be seen as an idiot to my department chair?”, “What role do I have in the American history classroom if I do not know if the Stamp Act was part of the Intolerable Acts (the question of my demise)?” I breezed through the question, did not let my doubts get the better of me, and told the student I would look into it.

I felt worse than the textbook that had it wrong. I, as a teacher, the bastion of knowledge, simply did not know. However, I really believe, (and this is not just because I want to feel better about my ignorance) that knowledge is no longer a commodity. The internet has fundamentally changed what it means to be a teacher (not an original thesis, but true). It really does not matter if I know the French Revolution started in 1789. It matters that I can explain how the combination of the enlightenment rhetoric, absolute power of the monarchy and hungry people led to revolution. Better yet, it is important that I link the French Revolution to the Arab Spring and while I do not know every dictator that was overthrown by name, I can teach that those revolutions began with a combination of a new “enlightened” rhetoric of twitter, the absolute power of a dictator, and hungry people. I would trade my students knowing and remembering the date 1789 for my test, for them to be able to make a connection between history and the present. I no longer want to try to be a bastion of knowledge, because Wikipedia has that covered, I want to try to be content with being wrong. In many ways, as teachers we need to go back to Socrates, who relied just on his intellect and his ability to ask the right questions to be an influential teacher.

One thought on “On Being Wrong

  1. Very cool to read the musings of a smart young teacher. This must be the future of education. Is it still wise to use a textbook for US History that presupposes the notion that you are trying to fight? Thanks to Chris Day for leading me to this blog.

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