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Family Matters
July 9, 2009

Teach Your Children To Learn
by Daniel Graham

FAIRFAX, VA — One of most important lessons you can teach your child is how to learn. Essentially, there are two methods of pedagogy. The first method is authoritative: truth is handed down from authority. The second method is experiential: truth is the result of experience.

Before the 1960s, pedagogy mostly involved an expert teacher pouring knowledge into empty vessels — students, a top-down and undemocratic approach. Dialogue was the means to test the students’ knowledge and ability to apply truth. By making a clear distinction between revealed truth and opinion, the authoritative method restricted teachers to their particular areas of expertise. Both teachers and students followed the rigors of the scientific method, citing sources. Ideology and personal opinions, such as feelings, were irrelevant. The authoritative method presumed that teachers were knowledgeable and students were relatively ignorant. Self-esteem was not an issue.

Modern thinkers want to liberate pedagogy and make it less restrictive and more democratic. Why? They want to liberate themselves from revealed truth. They reject authoritative methods in favor of experiential methods. Truth becomes a function of the self’s experience, not what God and Nature reveal. Because we all have different experiences, truth becomes opinion. And because everyone has an opinion, modern pedagogy becomes more democratic. Dialogue has become the means to share experiences and feelings — and self-esteem is paramount.

I admit that as a high school and college student in the 1960s and 1970s, I was flattered that teachers wanted to know what I thought or felt. And it was so easy! In fact, the cool teachers told me — somewhat ironically — that I did not need teachers; I just needed to open my mind and experience life.

Whole institutions — public, private, and religious — fell over each other trying to be at the vanguard of the new pedagogy. For example, in the Land of Lakes Statement 1967, Catholic universities rejected the authoritative pedagogy of Catholic education for the more experiential and democratic approach. With their declaration of academic independence, these Catholic universities cut themselves off from the vine, and they have been withering ever since. To say that Georgetown and Notre Dame are Catholic universities is laughable.

In the competition of methods, the modern thinkers won and won big. In fact, the prevailing opinion is that you cannot really know something until you have personally experienced it. Now, people make silly arguments: You can’t possibly know what oppression is because you are not a — pick one — male, female, gay, straight, minority, child, parent, senior citizen…. Today, the only qualification for knowledge is experience.

Experience can be great teacher, but the lessons can be unnecessarily painful. Experiential learning is also called the school of hard knocks. I know some clever engineers who have fallen into the trap of experiential learning. If given a hand grenade with instructions, they would eventually pull the pin to see what happens. From some hard knocks, there is no recovery.

The academy compounds the problem by telling us that knowledge is an absolute good — a rather self-serving assertion from people in the knowledge business. If knowledge is always good, then it follows that we can justify all kinds of experiences to gain knowledge. It is like Eve in the Garden: she has to experience that apple so she can really know good and evil. Now, young adults live together to experience a trial marriage. People who ought to know better try dangerous drugs — for the experience. Some parents serve alcohol to their underage children so the children might gain the experience. Despite a hundred years of watching socialism fail every time it has been tried, people argue seriously that we Americans cannot reject socialism because we have not experienced it yet. The new pedagogy has conditioned us to ignore much evidence and expert testimony.

So how do we as parents use this information? First, we can teach our children that we can learn two ways: from truth handed down and from experience. We can forewarn them that most of their teachers have bought into the latter method. We can emphasize that we do not need to experience something to know it; a wise man learns from others’ mistakes. I implore my children to learn from my mistakes.

Second, we can teach our children that the best way to learn something is to fill ourselves with truth taught by experts. We can learn law from lawyers, medicine from doctors, engineering from engineers, and so on. This type of learning is hard work for both teacher and student. Too many teachers have not mastered their subject; instead, they rely on what the students feel about the subject — a waste of everybody’s time.

Third, we can help our children prudently evaluate their newfound knowledge to determine if experience can improve the knowledge. If the experts say the outcome is usually bad, then we can forgo the experience. If the experts say the outcome is usually good, then we can go for it, to quote St. Thomas More. Knowledge enhanced with good experience is worth gold.

Our children who know how to learn can have the fullness of truth without the baggage of bad — and potentially destructive — experiences.

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Copyright by Daniel Graham and www.fgfbooks.com, the website of the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if the copyright information is included.

Daniel Graham has provided training and consulting services for 25 years to corporations and government agencies throughout North America and Europe. He has trained more than 70,000 engineers, scientists, and business professionals to write better documents faster. His articles on law, engineering, risk management, Catholic issues, and family topics have been published in diverse journals. He is an award-winning novelist.

Daniel Graham earned a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Alabama and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The College of William and Mary. For 10 years, he served as an officer in the United States Army with assignments in tactical and strategic intelligence. When serving as the Chief Executive Officer of High Frontier, Inc., he founded the Journal of Practical Applications in Space. He is the father of seven children.

See a complete biographical sketch.

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