Liberal Education

Knowing How to Learn

Socrates knew something perfectly well that some of us are only now beginning to understand.

Edward D. Hess, professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business, wrote recently in the Washington Post that he asked business innovation leaders what MBA students should be taught. “The overwhelming response was that we should be teaching our students ‘how to learn.’”

This is not just good advice for business students. It is a necessary skill for getting through life. We either learn how to learn, or we learn by chance and compulsion.

Socrates understood that knowing how to learn depends on coming to welcome the arrival of ignorance. Socrates questioned his interlocutors intensely, pushing them to the point where they realized that they didn’t know what they were talking about. When they came to that impasse, some of them would try to back away, to retreat to their former beliefs. But others were courageous enough to plunge forward into the unknown. The courage to keep going when beset by ignorance is the key to all learning and discovery.

Or, as Hess put it, “Knowing how to learn requires one to be comfortable not knowing. Only then can you be open minded to learning.”

Liberal education is the best and quickest way to become comfortable not knowing. By mastering a range of subject matter that may not always be congenial, students are repeatedly brought to the point of intellectual impasse. In time, they become comfortable with their ignorance. And they learn by experience that going forward, not backing away, is the path to mastery of learning—and of life.

Socrates knew this. So should we.