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Understanding Understanding

One way to make distinctions among the kinds of learning is to differen­tiate knowledge, skill, and understanding. Let me illustrate with an example of understanding.

Gilbert Ryle opens a piece of his[1] with the following conversation: “Don’t you know the difference between right and wrong?” “Well, I did learn it once, but I have forgotten it.”  He then adds, “This is a ridiculous thing to say. But why is it ridic­ulous?” Let us take his answer through the three kinds of learning.

The first possible answer to his question, which he gives in order to criticize, is that “the difference between right and wrong” is a collection of facts and labels: “duties to be done and derelictions to be apologized for.” We retain it, the argument goes, in something like the way we retain the reminders of the imminence of Christmas in early December: we remember the difference because we are reminded of it in factual encounters. If this were so, argues Ryle, then one might credit such forgetfulness as rare but not ridiculous. (I would argue that factual knowledge is the easiest kind to forget, and forgetfulness not so rare, particularly after cramming.)

The second answer, which he also dismisses, is that “knowing the difference between right and wrong is of a piece… with knowing how to do things.” If knowing the difference between right and wrong were a skill, he argues, it would improve with use and worsen with desuetude; but that is not the case. We don’t speak of conscience as we do of a golf swing. We can go to the driving range to improve our swing, but we don’t go to the right-and-wrong range to improve our conscience. People who have spiritual directors do not call them “Coach.” One can become more callous, but when one does, one is not “getting rusty.” (Learning as skill can be dusted off and brushed up, hence “refresher courses;” but whoever heard of a refresher course in ethics?)

The third, incomplete but not entirely wrong, is that knowing the difference between right and wrong is an educated taste or a cultivated preference. Since we usually associate tastes and preferences not just with knowing but also with approving, relishing, admiring, and pursuing—or their opposites—it seems incongruous, but not ridiculous, to have such knowledge and then to let it fall into disuse. Nor would we say that conscience is a kind of expertise or connoisseurship; otherwise, we could not expect it to be common knowledge. Knowing the difference between right and wrong is not this kind of understanding, though it is close.

Why, Ryle asks, if virtue can be taught, do we not have universities and technical colleges giving courses in “industriousness, fair-mindedness, and loyalty?” The answer is not that it cannot be taught. That is the answer you would expect of some­one who thinks that teaching and learning are all instruction and “behavioral objectives.” The answer is that it lies outside the scope of our “academic epistemologies,” in terrain inhabited by “inspiring, kindling, and infecting.”

I would add to Ryle’s discussion my own insight as a teacher: that this terrain, discovered or established by a good teacher and found by a good student or pointed out to other students, is primarily emotional, as Ryle’s discussion of understanding suggests. The emotions are complex, but they must include sympathy in both teacher and student. On the teacher’s part they include, as noted above, approving, relishing, admiring, and pursuing—or their opposites. On the student’s part they include the capacity to feel these emotions as well as some kind of uninstructed relish for what is being taught. They also include an act of faith or trust whereby the teacher’s feelings become an object of sympathetic emulation. The student learns the subject about which the teacher has these feelings, and activates or maybe even learns the feelings themselves, by application, by proving-encounters with the teacher (as on a Socratic or other proving-ground), and by inculcation. It is a powerful way to learn, which explains why even those who have not articulated how they learned this way can find absurd the notion of forgetting their lessons.


[1] “On Forgetting the Difference between Right and Wrong.”

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