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Another Socratic Oath

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Summary

The article titled ‘The Socratic Oath of an Academic’ in this collection discusses the concept of an academic’s Socratic Oath. To the two vows in that oath, I would like to add three that deserve commitment.

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Intellectual Humility

 

To quote Richard Feynman:

“We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognise our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.” (download .pdf)

The idea that scientific ‘knowledge’ lacks absolute certainty, and always leaves room for doubt, conflicts with the meaning of the English word ‘know’, forming a hurdle for the Socratic oath of an academic. When a teacher says:

“Rafa knows that the earth is round,”

what she means is:

“I believe, with complete certainty, that the earth is round, and Rafa shares my belief.”

 

The egocentricity of this position explains why we can say:

“I am convinced that the earth is round; Rafa is convinced that the earth is not round,”

but not:

“I know that the earth is round; Rafa knows that the earth is not round.”

 

The position is also arrogant, because it denies the possibility of being wrong. We can say:

“I am convinced that the earth is round, but I might be wrong,”

but not:

“I know that the earth is round, but I might be wrong.”

 

Countering the egocentrism and arrogance of the presupposition built into the verb ‘know’ lies at the core of my Socratic Oath. Let me formulate the vow that derives from the mindset of the intellectual humility that the Feynman quote expresses:

 

Vow 3: Intellectual humility

I will try my best to avoid the egocentrism and arrogance built into the English verb ‘know’. When I say, “I know that…,” it is a shorthand for “I am convinced that…, but I am aware that I might be wrong;” or “My current position, which I might abandon, is this.”

 

The Feynmanian commitment has two immediate consequences for my practice as an academic educator. First, it allows me the freedom to say, “I was wrong, you are right.” I am grateful for having achieved the emotional liberation, hence the courage, to say this to my students. Second, when a student asks me a question, it allows me the freedom to say, “I don’t know,” acknowledging my ignorance. (“Robert Sapolsky on Life and Free Will” is a role model for this aspect of intellectual humility.)

 

From Ignorance to Rationally Justified Belief

 

Research begins with a question. A research question is an articulation of what we do not know, but wish to find out. Hence, it needs to be clear about what we think we know, against the backdrop of our ignorance; and must choose a small area to investigate within that vast ocean of ignorance.

 

I take this awareness of my own personal ignorance and the ignorance of the academic community to my classroom. The vow that underlies this practice can be stated as follows:

 

Vow 4: Accepting fallibility and uncertainty

In every course I teach, I will try my best to articulate what we as an academic community don’t know, what we lack rational justification for, and what we are less certain of, such that it empowers my students to go beyond, challenge, and correct the knowledge transmitted by their elders.

 

For me, not communicating to students what Vow 4 promises to, and using words like ‘superstition’ and ‘irrational belief’ to refer to beliefs such as the following, is unethical:

“Some homeopathic medicines offer effective cures;” and

“There is a correlation between the time of one’s birth and the events in their life;”

The intellectual humility stemming from rational inquiry prompts a different expression, rooted in a different mindset:

“I reject the claim that homeopathic medicines offer effective cures, but I am willing to correct my position if I see evidence to show that they do cure human illnesses;” and

“I have not seen any evidence to support the hypothesis that there is a correlation between the time of one’s birth and the events in one’s life.”

 

Incorrect Answers and Misconceptions

 

The ethos of academic inquiry outlined above has further extensions. Statements like, “You are wrong,” “That answer is incorrect,” and “That is a misconception,” are common responses to students. Such responses come from a mismatch between what the teacher believes to be ‘true’, and what the learner says; and from a rejection of the learner’s position.

 

As an example, consider the following examination questions:

Can acquired characteristics be inherited?

What is fitness?

The school textbook says that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited; so if a student‘s answer to the first question is ‘yes’, it is likely to be marked ‘incorrect’, despite abundant evidence in science research against the textbook position.

 

Likewise, most textbooks define the concept of ‘fitness’ in terms of the number of offspring an organism leaves behind in comparison with another organism. (https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/evo_27). If a student capable of inquiry and critical thinking were to reject the definition because it leads, for instance, to the conclusion that all unicellular organisms leave behind exactly two offspring and hence have the same fitness, and were to answer the question in terms of “the fit between the structure, function, and niche of an organism,” the answer is likely to be marked ‘wrong’.

 

Comments like: “You are wrong,” or “That answer is incorrect,” mean: “Your answer conflicts with my beliefs.” Given the ethos of academic inquiry, this too is egocentric intellectual arrogance. An alternative to these expressions would be: “I disagree with your answer, because…” or “Have you considered …?” Similar remarks apply to what is popular in the education literature as ‘misconceptions’. (For an example, see “Misconceptions our children have about Reading Comprehensions | Educational Initiatives.”)

 

That brings me to Vow 5:

 

Vow 5: Rationally justified answers      

I will try my best not to dismiss my students’ answers as ‘incorrect’ or as ‘misconceptions’. Instead, I will try to probe into their reasons for those answers, and engage with them as fellow inquirers.

 

A consequence of this commitment is that teachers cease to become authority figures, and transform themselves into experienced fellow inquirers. This results in an academic culture where teachers and students are co-learners in the journey. In a course or a workshop at the tertiary level, I expect to learn from my students. And I actively encourage them to challenge my positions, argue against them, and if possible, change my positions. I take the fulfilment of this expectation as my greatest success.

 

The Sanskrit Sloka, “Oṃ saha nāv avatu…” (from the kaTha upanishad) reminds both teacher and student to engage together in the process of learning, in harmony:

 

May we together be protected;

May we together be nourished;

May we work together with vigor,

May our study be illuminating.

May we be free from discord.

Oṃ Peace, Peace, Peace!

 

For me, this Shloka articulates the essence of academic inquiry in the teacher-student relationship, as learners strive together to make the world a better place!

 

Tara Mohanan is a Co-Founder of ThinQ (http://www.thinq.education/). She can be reached at tara.mohanan@gmail.com or tara@thinq.education. The views expressed are personal.

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