Dialectical Learning

Some truth lives more in the doing, some in the knowing.

I went to a college that used discussion as the main mode of learning for the students. To prepare for class, we would all read the same text of a great thinker, one who wrestled with the deepest questions of human existence. We would come to class prepared to talk it through together.

Many have questioned this method. Lecture classes are more understandable; you come to class to learn from experts. When two peers read the same text for the first time, on the other hand, disagreements inevitably break out. How does that lead to the truth?

Dialectical Learning


The lecture method is best if what you want to learn can only be gotten through experience. It’s nice to think about building a bridge or painting a picture, but the truth of that knowledge only lives when you are doing it yourself. For that reason, hearing someone else present their understanding of the craft is best.

Their experience with the living truth will get you closer to that living truth. Discussing it with others who have not had that experience will only entrench you in further errors. Besides, if the doing is what the lecturer really loves, he won’t begrudge you the opportunity to do it for yourself.

Craft vs. Science

But there are some things that are not for the sake of doing. The ancient distinction between a craft and a science helps to decide which is most appropriate for the material we wish to study. A craft is knowledge for the sake of making something. A science is knowledge for the sake of the knowing.

Our culture has difficulty distinguishing between craft and science because of our emphasis on usefulness. Everything must be productive. Sciences, such as astronomy, which used to be prized for their beauty now have practical applications. And everyone assumes they should be applied.

Teachers from grade school on up must be prepared to answer the question, “When will I need to know this in my life?” The modern world has changed all of the sciences into crafts, and in doing so has lost something that the old world had right.


For sciences, truths that live most in thought, discussion is best. It is appropriate that this method be fraught with arguments and tangents–that’s how the thoughts came to be in the first thinkers. That is the only way we can come to the same thoughts ourselves.

At school, each reading was packed with thoughts. Reading them is like drawing out yarn from a pile of wool. By the end, I always had a large tangle of these various colored strands. I could pick out certain bits and think about them, but completely understanding the whole of it was a daunting task.

So with my arms full of the tangle, I made my way to class. There I found many others with similar tangles on the table in front of them. Some were bigger than mine, some smaller, some more messy, some very straight and clear indeed. All were somehow drawn from the same wool of the reading, and we hoped to make something of them.

The teacher came in with his own pile hidden in a bag. Why? Because these are the truths that are dead if you try to simply present them, like a skeleton in a museum. He wanted to take us on a trip where we could find truth in its natural habitat–discovery.

He would choose a small piece, hold it out to the class, and say, “What is this?”

My classmates would hold up various pieces of their threads, trying to attach them to what the tutor held, using the colors as directions and arguments. They pulled them this way and that, testing different angles and connections.

When I felt I had a handle on where we were in reference to my own tangle (and the tangle we’d been working out in the last few classes), I joined the fray. Each of us found something to surprise us, to marvel at, as our piles untangled, matched up, and connected.

By the end, we were all holding the thread. Twists, ties, and bends connected as many ideas as we can hold. It was a giant, fantastic string figure, requiring many hands and much yarn. Those thoughts became ours, and they were much more beautiful than a skeleton.

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