Philosophy of Learning 3 (common sense)

  1. לְהַשְׂכִּיל –(to discern) common sense

The old tired cliché is common sense is neither common nor sense. Some go so far as to argue the entire idea of common sense is a fallacy. Definitions of common sense are as varied as the ideas of what common sense might encompass, which is the source of the confusion. One might easily argue that the rubric is a phenomenon that everyone can perceive but no one can comfortably define for everyone else to agree. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote in a Supreme Court decision, it is hard to define pornography, “but I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964) We know common sense when we hear it, which is not only too ambiguous to be useful but also counter-productive. We are left without a definition; nonetheless, the rubric exists.

Common sense can be found in all sorts of human endeavors but no matter where common sense is identified or claimed, two elements must be present. First, there must be a convincing argument. The argument does not have to convince everyone but the argument must have accepted assumptions, a logical progression from point to point, and reasonableness. The first element must be well-structured argument whose conclusion cannot be challenged because one of the assumptions is false.

The second element is all other competing arguments must be disproved. For a common sense point to be valid, the presenter cannot just have the best argument. The presenter has to demonstrate conclusively that the other arguments fail to prove the point they are attempting to make, or unmake as the case may be. This second element is a much higher bar of proof than most other human endeavors.

If one of the two elements is not present, then one holds an opinion rather than a proof. Even if a presenter offers a persuasive argument with gifted tongue and keen insight to sway the most skeptical, unless the presenter meets the higher bar of disproving the other arguments, then all of the bombast is for naught. A good argument is not enough.

From the other side, if all that one can do is prove that the other arguments are inadequate but can offer nothing in their place, the presentation is also a failure. Disproving everyone else is an accomplishment but by itself, this type of argumentation fails. The absence of competition does not convey success because common sense is neither a race nor a battle of wits.

Common sense is rare because both elements together are difficult to create. Common sense is a type of truth, a rarity of human truth that is also universal. Most human truth is flawed because anything mortal is imperfect. Common sense is a high goal but as we can attest, this truth can be achieved.

Philosophy of Learning 2

  1. לְהָבִין – (to understand) comprehend/analyze concepts or abstraction

The rubric of understanding, which is used in this case as a technical term, is one of the ideas in human history whose evolution can be demonstrated. The evolution begins with a concrete or literal understanding of the world and transforms over time, sometimes with revolutionary leaps and other times gradually, into abstract ideas.

Consider the human quest to understand math, which is worldwide. The path begins with addition/subtraction, which are inescapably concrete equations. The first documents unearthed in the Ancient Near East are tax collection documents – all addition until the king spends it. Humans quickly discover fractions, decimals, zero as a number, pi, algebra and onto calculus, the most abstract set of concepts of mathematics. The history of mathematics is not just the history of learning and discovering, advances in mathematics required the development of an idea of existence without a concrete substance to anchor it. Plato records this first great explication of abstraction as “The Theory of Forms,” one recognizes a chair, not because one sees it, but because of understands what “chair-ness” is and sees that form in that particular object.

In our own day and age, we are so far into the compelling world of concept and abstraction that we do not even recognize that the foundational assumptions we use every day are great leaps of comprehension. Sticking with math a moment more, the least of the book-learned of the world have no problem understanding this symbol: “3”. The symbol 3 represents three objects such as three x’s – xxx. Whether one is giving a foreign tourist a price at a store or one is standing at an ATM, when eyeing the 3 symbol, most recognize they are expecting 3 of that currency. Holding up three fingers for three euros is concrete, writing the number 3 on paper across the sales desk is abstract.

This evolution of thought can be applied to every human endeavor. The walls of the ancients Egyptian tombs are filled with art, yet all of the gods have distinct concrete depictions, no matter how fantastical, of a human body with the head of an animal, a falcon or a jackal perhaps. Compare that one of these figures to a Picasso where the human figures are presentations that have to be interpreted.

From simple counting to double-entry accounting, or from quill and ink to the ballpoint pen, these are examples of the evolution of understanding, not just the evolution of discovery and invention.

The ideal of being able to manipulate abstraction in one’s thoughts using memorized points and conscious focus is a goal of the common core curriculum. When entrepreneurs in the New Economy jobs are successful, their success is often attributed to this type of learning. STEM jobs are supposed to be this type of comprehension, although they are so much more.

From the other side of the coin, when people proclaim that they are stupid, what they often are referencing is a perceived failure to comprehend abstraction. “I just don’t get it” or “I hear what you are saying but I don’t understand.” The slang “get it” refers to the failure to formulate an abstract thought.

One’s ability to comprehend abstract ideas cannot be measured by tests unless the test is attuned to way a specific person learns. Humans learn and practice the art of abstraction using different methods. Some are visual learners (“I see what you mean”), some are aural learners (“I hear what you’re saying”), and some, particularly artists, are kinetic learners (Let me draw you a picture”). None of us are purely one type. Films combine all three types of learning and viewers pick up cues from all three sensory avenues to follow the story although not everyone will follow the film in the same manner or identify all of the cues.

Understanding is not simple; it is a universe of perceiving ideas and invoking imagination.

Philosophy of Learning 1

How do we learn?  (or how did the Common Core curriculum, written by some smart people, miss the mark so widely?)

The Jewish world has a particular set of ideas of what is learning that are encapsulated in the morning service a Jew is supposed to recite every day. In our day where the methodologies of learning are changing with technology and global economy, this Jewish approach argues that the act of learning is still the same. Moreover, this particular approach to learning is more comprehensive and (one would hope) more effective than the methods being applied in public school curricula and often in college level curricula. For the non-Hebrew reading person, not knowing Jewish liturgy or Hebrew is not an obstacle for understanding the points this essay but my argument demands I reference the source text in the original:

וְתֵן בְּלִבֵּֽנוּ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל, לִשְׁמֹֽעַ, לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד, לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת וּלְקַיֵּם אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ בְּאַהֲבָה..

“. . .and You have placed in my heart the ability to understand and discern, to hear, to learn and to teach, to observe and to do, and to uphold all the words of learning of Your Torah with love.”

The Hebrew above is a phrase taken from the morning service. The blessing is Ahavah Rabba (“With Great Love” has God given us. . .) from the Shemah and Its Blessings קריאת שמע section. Buried in this ancient text is a philosophy of how we learn that is very different from the mainstream of Western Thought that begins with Socrates and his foundational ideas (e.g. the Socratic Method). Jewish learning enters into the Western Canon at various points in time and a student will recognize the methods. The uniqueness encapsulated in this blessing is the number and depth of the approaches.

Unusual in Jewish history, all of the earliest versions of this blessing all agree on this text. There are no variants (Ismar Elbogen “Jewish Liturgy”). The blessing is first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 111b) although not all of its contents. Centuries later among the various written sources that stretch from Babylonia to the north coast of Africa through Spain and Europe continuing on to Russia, all extant prayer books or commentaries use the same wording for this sentence. Recognize that this exact wording remained intact over both thousands of kilometers and a thousand and a half years.

If from our most ancient available sources there is unanimous agreement, then it follows that this philosophy of learning was not only accepted but it was practiced. The opposite of controversial, this philosophy was concrete and confirmed through use. The Talmud has expansive examples of all sorts of methods of learning, including climbing a tree and hiding in the leaves to memorize Bible passages that the students were supposed to have already committed to memory (the art of procrastination). For quick access, the Talmud is unwieldy. The prayer book reduces a great deal of belief and learning that Talmud aggregated into an easily accessible daily repetition. This partial sentence on learning is one of those well done, concise reductions.

According to this blessing, learning and the love of learning is a gift from God. Rabbis are lifelong learners first and foremost; they are scholars. The ideal for them is “Let your house be a meeting place for the Sages, and sit amid the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.” (Pirke Avot 1.4 though the quote is earlier, 2nd century BCE). In the rabbinic mind, if one receives a gift from God, then one is obligated to make the gift orderly and use it. This line in the blessing is the rabbinic presentation of the elements of learning.

There are eight methods of learning, which I will translate literally in parenthesis and contextually in modern parlance afterward:

  1. לְהָבִין – (to understand) comprehend/analyze concepts or abstraction
  2. לְהַשְׂכִּיל –(to discern) common sense
  3. לִשְׁמֹֽעַ – (to hear) active listening
  4. לִלְמֹד – (to learn) book learning
  5. לְלַמֵּד – (to teach) teaching
  6. לִשְׁמֹר – (to keep, to guard, to observe) to practice or practice with repetition
  7. לַעֲשׂוֹת – (to do, to make) learn by doing, practice wisdom
  8. לְקַיֵּם – (to uphold, establish, preserve) memorization and recollection.

To clarify any misunderstanding, these eight approaches are not types of knowledge. Knowledge (דעה) is an entire philosophy unto itself. These eight methods lead to knowledge.

In the next essay I will explain each of the eight methods as I develop this idea into an article. At first glance does this presentation make sense?

P.S.: I am so impressed that WordPress can publish a foreign alphabet.

Skepticism or Ignorance

On one of the more academic message boards I follow, someone asked, “How do we know the First Temple (Solomon’s Temple) actually existed? Those who took the man’s question at face value gave proof texts from many different books in the Bible while admitting that there is no archeological evidence. There is no archeological evidence because one cannot/should not excavate under the Dome of the Rock. No matter, the skeptic was not convinced; he became belligerent.

His belligerence only confirms the status of this person – the man is ignorant. The stupidity of the question is easily explained by the course of Israelite history. Solomon’s Temple and his palace was a turning point in Israelite history but not because of a standing House of Worship dedicated to the One God. The excesses of slave labor and the territorial ceding of twenty-three towns and villages in the northwest corner of the country to the Kingdom of Tyre to pay for these buildings led to civil war and a split of United Kingdom into the minor kingdoms of Judah and Israel, kingdoms that never reunited. If the skeptic had studied the Biblical history of the First Temple just a little bit, then the question never would have been asked.

A cliché that has been tossed about for years, usually to encourage shy students, is “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” For a shy student who is afraid to ask, asking any question is a pedagogical success because the content of the question does not matter as much as the new interaction with the teacher. A first question becomes a starting point for teaching a student how to engage the material. However, the cliché is not always understood from a teacher’s point of view but is assumed as a broad statement of academic integrity, that is to say, any question is legitimate. Perhaps in perfect world but in our day the cliché is just a “feel good” sentiment that permits ignorant questions that suck time, effort and life out of a lesson or conversation. When questions and challenges stop the learning process, they are stupid questions. Belligerence on the part of questioner is one of the symptoms of destructive pedagogic behavior.

Skepticism, a philosophical tool of the Greeks, was developed to test the soundness of an argument and its assumptions. Skepticism uses questions as tool to test the soundness of an idea, like using your finger to thump a watermelon to test its ripeness. Like the cliché above, skepticism is great when used in this limited sense but as a broad tool used to challenge everything, skepticism is destructive and debilitating to the process of learning or decision making. Using skepticism as a broadside is meant to attack rather than create.

For anyone who has come prepared to a class and listened to another student who has not prepped ask an ignorant question that the first sentences of the assignment answered, the sense of dismay is powerful. Yet this is not the destructive skepticism that destroys a lesson but statement of pervasive ignorance. Correcting ignorance, no matter its source, can be used as a part of teaching. Pervasive skepticism is not redeemable.

How many times have teenagers exclaimed, “Why do we have to study this? I’m never going to use it.” This is not a teachable moment. If the student has exclaimed, “When am I ever going to use this?”, only then is the opening to teach available. Overindulgent Skepticism kills learning.

Then again, there are some people whose agenda is to do just that.