Wikimedia Commons
"The School of Athens" by Raphael.

Modern educational theory is eager to press the distinction between the learning of mere “facts” and a more glorious initiation in the power of “critical thinking.” Of course it is true that learning cannot be reduced to memorization and that it is important to develop skills and approaches that can be adapted to new subject matters and new problems. But it is a mistake to drive a wedge between particular facts and some universal, all-purpose intellectual power. Learning is always learning about reality, about the way things are. And learning in the deepest sense has a reflective dimension; it includes learning about ourselves, and thus about the human condition, about the permanent practical and spiritual challenges that define who we are as human beings.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” This is Socrates’ famous declaration in "The Apology of Socrates," written by his most famous student, Plato. Socrates is defending his way of life, the life of philosophizing, of passing one’s time striking up conversations in the marketplace concerning life’s meaning. However a conversation may have started, Socrates will always turn it toward one or another fundamental question that bears on how we should live: What is piety? What is justice? What is the Good? Socrates is the most critical of critical thinkers because he asks such self-reflective questions. His “critical thinking” is not an all-purpose tool for success in the pursuit of power, wealth or popularity; his examined life is worth living because it sheds light on higher things and opens the mind to a higher dimension of reality. True “critical thinking,” Socrates teaches us, depends on the fact of transcendence.

Socrates’ next most famous statement in "The Apology" is his apparently humble confession: He knows only that he knows nothing. This knowledge of ignorance is the only superiority he claims over the successful and powerful people he interrogates and annoys. But is this the last word on the nature and extent of Socrates’ knowledge? If so, this would make the job of critical thinking simpler and easier. Many religious skeptics as well as religious believers would be happy to conclude that reason cannot take us beyond knowledge of ignorance on questions of what is right and good. If reason has nothing to say concerning how we should live, then atheists are free to do their own thing and believers are free to believe as they will.

But pure knowledge of ignorance is not in fact Socrates’ last word. Further on, as Socrates defends his way of life, he actually blurts out the words “I do know…”! Just what does Socrates know? “I do know that injustice or disobedience to a better, whether god or man, is evil and dishonorable. …” To honor and obey our betters, it seems, is the first rule of critical thinking. The “examined life” is founded, not on pure, easygoing skepticism, but on a sacred regard for the real fact of a moral authority above ourselves. Without this primary deference to higher authority, we cannot really know ourselves and understand truth.

In the Biblical tradition, this beginning of wisdom is represented in the linkage between the first and the fifth commandments: Loving God (and therefore our neighbor) is tied to honoring our parents. More generally, I would say, true education necessarily starts with the primary moral attitude revealed in Socrates’ confident outburst: respecting our betters, beginning with our forbears and those under whose authority (first parents, then teachers and respectable “grown-ups” in general) we are raised up. In this sense, true education and true “critical thinking” depend upon respect for tradition, on acknowledgement of a moral authority that precedes and exceeds our poor selves.

12 comments on this story

Of course, not all parents, or all traditions, are equally worthy of respect, and some will undermine their own authority. But the fifth commandment, and the more general lesson for education, stands. This is arguably a lesson that Plato better integrated into a complete teaching than had his mentor, Socrates.

Today we like to think that the power of “critical thinking” can be emancipated from all deference to the fact of authority as built into families, traditions and religion. But children will never learn to think critically if they do not learn the first truth, a truth revealed in different ways to Socrates and Moses: The beginning of wisdom is respect for an authority higher than oneself and one’s generation.