The Virtues of Artisanal Education

Contrast two classroom experiences. In classroom A, education is completely programmed. The teacher knows exactly what material is going to be covered during each session, how it will be transmitted to students, and how students will be assessed. All lesson plans, pedagogical techniques, and assessments (multiple-choice tests) were prepared before the school year began. In classroom B, education involves a substantial degree of improvisation by teacher and students, the learning format varies based on how each session evolves, and assessment is largely shaped by what has transpired in the classroom. Neither the teacher nor the students could know before the course starts or even before each session how they would play out.

Classroom A, a model of programmed instruction, has many virtues, in comparison to which classroom B seems wanting. It permits teacher, students, school administrators, and external reviewers to know with a high degree of confidence what is going on in the classroom each day. Absent the odd fire drill or classroom disruption, the school term marches along like clockwork. Should a teacher fall ill or need to miss a portion of the course for some reason, another instructor can simply step in and follow the lesson plan. Students who miss class know exactly what work they need to make up. Like a well-tuned assembly line in a highly efficient factory, programmed instruction hums along, churning out a predetermined product, session after session, year after year.

But there is a big problem with the industrial model of education. It operates on the assumption that each teacher and student is pretty much the same as every other, essentially interchangeable. It is a one-size-fits-all model of education, in which differences between teachers and students are treated as irrelevant, or perhaps extinguishable. In primary school, every student needs to learn to read, and every student should be taught to read in the same way and achieve the same reading level by the end of the term. In medical school, an educational environment in which I spend a good deal more time, every medical student should learn the same anatomy and pathology, the same internal medicine and surgery, as every other, sitting for exactly the same multiple-choice achievement and licensing examinations.

Classroom B would strike many educational policymakers as anathema. How can a responsible administrator possibly allow teachers to determine what they will teach, how they will teach it, and how students will be assessed? How can a responsible teacher possibly allow students to exert influence over similar matters? In short, how can education tolerate artisanship? Wouldn’t the result be chaos, with students in different schools and different classes doing and learning different things, and being assessed according to different standards? In a word, education would become unstandardized, which is to say to some degree customized, and once any degree of artisanal, tailor-made education supplants the industrial model, all pretensions of accountability and fairness would seem to fly out the window.

Socrates seems to have been aware of this tension between standardization and customization in education. In Plato’s Symposium, Socratic irony is in full force as he wistfully muses, “If only wisdom were a sort of thing that could flow out of the one of us who is fuller into him who is emptier, by our mere contact with each other, as water will flow through a straw from a fuller cup into an emptier one.” If only this were so, we could simply position learners near teachers, connect them with straws, or computer cables, or wireless signals, and watch the precious fluid flow from teacher to student, confident that each student is getting exactly the same thing. We could then hold each student up to a measuring stick and verify that the mission had been accomplished.

But of course, Socrates knows that wisdom is not such a fluid. We can download data into a digital storage device, but a human being is not a storage device, and what they need to grow in is not data. Socrates pursued knowledge through conversation and Plato wrote in dialogues not because they had nothing better to do, but because such a model of learning best reflects their understanding of what it means to know. Real wisdom, which includes an understanding of what kind of knowledge is most worth pursuing, is acquired not by mere reading or listening but by active engagement in something that resembles conversation. This is the way John Adams seems to have read books, filling the margins with his handwritten observations, adumbrations, and objections, as though he were conversing with the author.

What matters is not so much what a teacher can pour into a student, but how an educator can engage a learner in the shared pursuit of understanding.

Plato’s dialogues are filled with characters who differ from one another. Meno merely wants to impress with his urbanity the people he meets as an itinerant teacher of rhetoric. Thrasymachus wants to prevail over his opponents. Simmias and Cebes want to know why, in the face of death, it still matters whether one is virtuous or not. Socrates is not merely pouring out wisdom, some of which may or may not land in an empty vessel. He is engaging in conversation with particular human beings, each of whom brings his own set of questions, motives, capabilities, life experiences, and character. To pursue wisdom, teachers need to know who they are working with—what serves one well may not work so well for another.

Moreover, the student is not an empty vessel, a passive receptacle. To find wisdom, or perhaps to be found by wisdom, it is necessary to be actively engaged in its pursuit. Reading a good book or listening to a good lecture can foster such engagement, but the ideal model of education is artisanal. My graduate courses in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago were almost never lecture-based. Most were seminars, where instead of a sage on a stage, teacher and students were seated around a table, each invited and encouraged to participate in the conversation. A good portion were tutorials, where a teacher and a single student spent the session in active interchange, and the student often did most of the talking. Teachers were learning right along with students.

This spirit of conversation is well captured by Michael Oakeshott, who contrasted it with “an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit” or “a contest where a winner gets a prize.” Instead, he wrote, conversation is “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” If Socrates, Plato, and Oakeshott are right about this, classroom A is essentially doomed, at least if education aims to engage any part of the student beyond mere rote memory. And in fact, even in memorization learning remains active. To learn anything, we must see it in relation to what we have already known or experienced. If an idea is floating isolated in mental space, then we don’t really know it and certainly won’t understand or be able to recall it long term. At the very least, we need to know why it is worth holding on to.

Classroom A, education as mass production, seems rational. It seems efficient. It seems fair—after all, everyone gets the same material, by the same means, followed by the same assessments. But from a Socratic point of view, it is not really education. Etymologically, education means leading or drawing out. What matters is not so much what a teacher can pour into a student, but how an educator can engage a learner in the shared pursuit of understanding. It is not so much about retaining what one has been told as developing an innate taste for exploration and delight in discovery. It is not about producing copies of the teacher or even an ideal student, but helping learners become better versions of themselves, each capable of contributing to families, communities, and humanity in distinctive ways.

Education at its best invites us to participate in something beyond ourselves—a conversation that began long before we arrived on the scene and will carry on after we are gone. Some geniuses may enter it entirely on their own, but most of us depend on the education we receive to be introduced and sustained in it. Once we become a part of it, it can offer us great treasures—not so much money, power, or fame, but answers to our questions, and perhaps even more importantly, the ability to pose still better ones. If all goes well, it may open up opportunities not only to listen in but also to contribute in ways that prove illuminating to others. One such contribution incumbent on every participant is to defend and advance the role of artisanship in education—to create and serve in classroom B.