Three Year Olds and Socratic Learning

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”  Lou Holtz

Angela and Meg 1988

Angela and Meg 1988

When our youngest daughter Meg was around four, we were walking around our old neighborhood in Providence. As we approached one house, we were accosted by a malodorous intrusion.  My first thoughts were ‘broken septic pipe’; my second was that all smells are particulate, which was not comforting. I realized that Meg was just trying to reconcile an unpleasant incident and her previous experiences with smells outdoors.  “Dad, is someone having a yucky cookout?” I read that the average four-year-old asks four hundred questions a day. I thought that was an exaggeration until we encountered Meg, a mischief always ready to throw something or run from a call home and always ready to ask a question, most of the time with five follow up questions. She outdid the most dogged of journalists.

Curious Mary

Curious Mary 2015

Our third granddaughter Mary may outdo her Aunty Meg with questions. She gauges the temperature in the room, especially when she thinks she may have crossed a line. “Are you mad?” “Are you sad?” “Are you happy?”  A couple of months ago, she wanted to clear up an issue of compelling interest to her at the moment. When she was instructed to stop picking her nose (which is a remarkably cute one), she immediately asked, “Can I pick the other one?” She needed to know if the prohibition was nostril specific – not an unnecessary clarification for a three-year-old. Curiosity is what leads us first to knowledge, then to understanding, and then perhaps with “know thyself” good fortune, wisdom – that most necessary of gifts.

The wisest teach with questions, many times not providing all the answers themselves, but leading each inquiring mind to seek the truth. Not to say that truth is solely subjective, but that finding elusive, objective truth is not for the weak of spirit or mind. Socrates taught with questions and reminded us that only by coming to grasp with our own ignorance do we scratch out the beginnings of wisdom. In the biblical history of Jesus of Nazareth, we observe that in all His recorded utterances, He answered directly only ten of the one hundred and eighty-seven questions He was asked. He related parables and stories. In those same scriptures He asked three hundred questions.

“Try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.” Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

We have learned as a people and as individuals mostly by asking questions: the right questions. For those most difficult to understand questions, a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes, are necessary, and the illumination of history helps. This is most difficult, for to understand our history, wisdom is learning what the events of history were to those who lived them, not in the revisionist light of our own interpretation. The corollary is also dismayingly true. As contemporaries within our own defining events, we don’t know how they will turn out; what the outcome will be in a hundred years or twenty of this cultural phenomenon or this movement of our rulers or this election, we cannot know.  Our understanding while living within these events is indispensable, and the decisions we make elucidated by that understanding equally so, but we cannot know, definitively know. We can surmise based on what has happened to others in similar cultural changes, making analogous choices perhaps. While consequences are to some degree predictable, absolute certainty is not ours to have.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”

So let’s ask a few:

  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that industrial capitalism and consumerism needs reform.
  • Is that needed reform to descend into revolution and chaos as the so-called Protestant Reformation did when the sixteenth century Church required reform from its excesses and faults? Is that reform to be clumsily centralized by a coercive government or localized to the town, the association, the parish, the congregation, the family and the person? Will we learn from the last century’s bloody experiments of “reform” of capitalism with fascist and communist usurpation?
  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that the hedonism and self-absorption of a culture cannot lead anyplace good.
  • Will we regain our footing and recover a culture that seeks happiness planted in the rich soil of wisdom rather than in dissociated pleasure, shallow rooted in ephemera and trifling entertainments and sexual license? Will our inclinations lead to further degradation of the dignity and individual worth of every human life? Will our lives tend towards despair or hope; fear and anger or persistence and courage; bitterness or joy; ignorance or faith; hatred or love; humility or the condemning certainty of the self-righteous? Will we spend our precious time in regrets about the past we cannot change or neglecting the present for the chimera of the future while today is all that we have?

 “As you get older, the questions come down to two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” David Bowie

The final questions I leave to those much wiser than I.  From Hilaire Belloc’s brilliant book, The Great Heresies, “But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone not an idiot, is faced by this Problem of Evil; and as we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: Why should we suffer? Why should we die?”

And from John Henry Newman: “On my deathbed, issues that agitate me most now will then interest me not at all; objects about which I have intense hope and fear now will then be nothing more than things that happen at the other end of the earth. They will have no life in them, those things that once consumed me. They will be as faded flowers of a bouquet that do nothing but mock me. What will it avail me to have been rich or great or fortunate or honored or influential?”

 Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions
Are they lost or are they found?
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?”
  Bob Dylan, “Slow Train”


Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

7 responses to “Three Year Olds and Socratic Learning

  1. Steve Linsky

    Wonderful and meaningful words. You start with yearnings and learnings of children and end with the questions and musings of the elderly. As I get closer to that path to eternity , I do ask myself if I made a mark on people’s lives because that is all that counts. How many will come to my funeral,  not because they feel obligated but because they remembered someone that cared about them.. of note, I never realized that Bob Dylan’s songs are in fact poetry.. what a mind, even though a few brain cells went away with some of his favorite chemicals.  A rich guy’s wife promised to put his 💰 in his casket with him.She sincerely mean’t to keep her promises, but the family needed the money ( and he was a selfish cruel man.) so, job done! She tossed a check into the casket and left her stamp on his last request.

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    • You have left and continue to leave a positive mark on people’s lives, Steve. As you are a tough bird, you’ll be coming to my funeral hopefully. Rather than think about gathering at funerals, however, when are we going to have lunch or coffee?


  2. Anthony Vinson

    The innate curiosity of childhood can easily be juxtaposed with the wisdom of elderhood; the comparisons are striking. What happens in between? We are taught not to question, but instead to obey and accept. We are admonished to automatically respect our elders without requiring that they earn it. How does this make sense? It doesn’t. We should certainly be polite, kind, and even deferential to those older than us and in positions of authority, but respect, like trust, must be earned.

    I have often considered the existence of machines hidden in the basements of every public elementary school. The machines quickly and painlessly remove all imagination and instill conformity. Second graders are secretly escorted to the machines early in the first quarter of the school year and after that are forever slaves to the system. I was absent the day my second grade class made the trip, and have existed on the fringe since. It’s interesting out here, but I’ll tell you, there are times that I would love to find that different drummer and shove the sticks up his ass! How much easier to simply take the blue pill? (Yes, I just mixed Walden with The Matrix. I think that Thoreau would have enjoyed the concept.)
    I taught my kids to ask questions and did my level best to answer honestly. Was it a challenge? You bet! And while there are certainly things I would do different if given the opportunity, I am fairly happy with the results. They continue to ask questions and challenge the silliness of the system whenever they encounter it. Not that it always does a great deal of good, mind you. Both are productive members of society, doing their best with what they have.

    I have long tried to honor the advice of Doug Henning, an early hero of mine, who counseled that we should retain a childlike sense of wonder into adulthood. Damn those basement machines!

    Jack, your premises and questions are thought provoking. I would argue that industrial capitalism and consumerism merged decades ago into consumer capitalism and that the hybrid is an insatiable, self-destructive monster. Without the continued absorption of more and more things we don’t need, the economy collapses. Without the billions of dollars of consumer credit floating just below the sandy surface, the ground gives way. Rather than long-term solvency, businesses care only about next quarter’s number. Stockholders demand quick returns and then sell to the next level of investor, taking their own funds to the next target. And let’s not even add the effects of globalization…

    How much of that hedonism and self-absorption is created by that self-same consumer culture? Much or most, I would argue. We have been led to define ourselves not by who we are, but rather by what we have. Character? Integrity? Values? What are those compared to the latest iPhone, the newest models of tech, and the ability to binge watch television shows? We’re no longer striving to keep up with just the Joneses; we’re competing with everyone else.
    Can we turn it around? I would imagine so. To me the real question is, are we willing? I sense an urging among the masses of men to eschew consumer capitalism. At this point it is barely a rumble, but it seems to be slowly growing. And as Arlo (sorta) said all those years ago, if enough people walk in and sing a bar of the song, pretty soon you’ve got a movement.

    Good to hear from you and happy to know that all is well.



    • Av, thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. Consumer capitalism is a meaningful hybrid of a concept and reflects the reality that consumerism drives the most trivial aspects of capitalism. As was said of democracy, capitalism is the worst of economic models, except for all the others. Also agree that consumerism that feeds the hedonism and “the latest and greatest will bring me happiness,” a mobius of disappointment. I think both streams of thought are battling for ascendency – the model of embracing hedonism and consumerism as the best we can expect from lives denuded of other meaning, and the model rejecting that downward spiral to seek with open minds another path. My prayers are for the latter.
      Best regards and keep swinging at what comes over the plate, j


  3. Well sometimes people need a little input too along side the questions. I think I am inputter. Like one time in a sermon I said, “Imagine the the lovely day when the first cotton underwear came off the machines.”


  4. Well people also need input so that they can formulate questions. I think I am an inputter. Like one time in a sermon I said, “Imagine that lovely day when the first cotton underwear came off the machines.”


    • Cotton underwear was a definite improvement, although I had you pegged as possibly either hair shirt or commando.

      On a serious note, did you read Belloc’s ‘The Great Heresies” that I quoted in the post? In addition to fascinating observations, background and history of the Arian, Manachean and the related Albigensian varieties, he is insightful about Protestantism and scarily prescient about Islam. Written in 1936, it remains remarkably relevant to our troubled times. Especially notable is his section on The Modern Attack of secularism and the effects current and future on the Church and culture.

      So good to see you twice in the last year. Watching your DVD with great interest – the fruit of hard earned wisdom. We need to discuss over a coffee or adult beverage on a long winter night in Maine (or Rhode Island)?


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