Monday, November 08, 2010

I Only Know That I Do not Know

When I was on the Camp Staff at Bartlett, our Director, Tom Bird, taught us a B.S.A. teaching/learning technique called Guided Discovery. I studied it again at my first National Camp School at Aspen Grove; directed by Vern Dunn. This method was presented at Schiff Scout Camp in New Jersey, where I attended National Executive Institute (NEI). The idea filled lesson plans and my mind. One day, as I read Plato’s Meno, I discovered Socrates using Guided Discovery to guide a boy to truth. What an exciting discovery, what a wonderful way to tie together so many things that are special to me.

This is Tom Bird in the old kitchen at Bartlett. Tom was long the Lake Bonniville Council's Wood Badge Course Advisor. He was my Camp Director the year before I became a Professional Scout and my boss once I did. His wisdom and example have been an important part of my life.


Left to right - Brain Bock, Leonard Hawkes, and Shaun Oborn proforme "Meno's Boy" on the Camp Loll Campfire Bowl stage in 1981. They are using notes - it didn't hurt the proformace. I have discovered that, if Socrates knows what he is to say, the others say what they should like some kind of magic.

They look much better in costume than I ever could. What a great stage!

Leonard was and is a great teacher.

Brian grew up to be a computer genius.

And our slave boy, Shaun Oborn, after whom I named my son, he teaches Computers at the University.

With the help of some friends I began presenting “Meno’s Boy” to my Camp Staffs as part of our lesson plan development training. This same crew began presenting the dialogue at the National Camp School at which I was privileged to teach. In those early days, Leonard Hawkes played Socrates to my Meno; we would draft a favorite Jr. Staffer to play the slave boy. At one Camp School, Rulon Skinner video taped us to show his BYU youth leadership classes. When Leonard left me, I took on the role of Socrates myself. We did Meno’s Boy at thirteen National Camp Schools and years of camp staffs. Then I became a school teacher.


In 1983, we preformed the dialogue at National Camp School, held at Camp Kesil. Leonard was still Socrates, Doug Hopper plays a very well grown Slave boy, that's me as Meno.

Doug grew from slave boy to Air Force Officer and Airline Pilot. He is also the father of two Camp Loll Staffers.

I love teaching Greek History and I decided to try the play for my classes. I had Curtis Grow, Brian Daems, and Trent Warner act out the dialogue – in costume – in front of my classes, but then they too grew up. I had to go it on my own. I was a little dubious the first time I tried it solo. I called up students at random for the class. It worked like a charm. These kids couldn’t have done better jobs had they memorized the lines. I have introduced my students to the wonder of logical thinking and the power of reason with this magical exercise ever since.


Doug was back as Meno in 1984. The slave boy is his younger brother David. David also an Air Force officer with a PhD in Engirneering. I wonder if Socrates gets any credit? No - that goes to his mom.

Dave's son has also worked at Loll.

In the fall of 84 Doug and Leonard preformed again at an adult leader traing course at Kesil.

The slave boy did his part as well.

Doug just keeps getting better.

Leonard is the Master.

Here is how it goes:

Socrates grew to old age like many citizens of Athens. He trained and served in the military, learned a trade – stone cutting – built a family, and spent his free time talking with his friends at the Agora. He found he had a knack for stirring the minds of others. He had a god to inspire him, and accepted the mission of gadfly to the Athenian beast. This mission became his passion.

An amazingly varied group of young men chose to study with him. All students were welcome, and all could afford his fee, for – unlike the sophists – Socrates did not charge for his wisdom. His most famous student was Plato. Socrates did not believe in writing, assuming it was a passing fad – like computers. Fortunately, for us Plato disagreed with his master and wrote down almost all we know of Socrates’ Philosophy. Plato was a very wealthy young man, an aristocrat. Not so with Phaedo. Phaedo was a slave boy, a survivor of the massacre at Melos. His master exploited Phaedo’s beauty, renting him out as a boy prostitute. At Socrates urging, Plato bought Phaedo’s freedom. Together they studied virtue, argued as equals, and sought the truth.

Another wealthy pupil was Alcibiades, the adopted son of Pericles – long the most influential man in the Athenian democracy. Alcibiades was physically beautiful, and Socrates saw beauty in his soul. Socrates once saved his life on the battlefield, and on another day Alcibiades returned the favor. Socrates did not love his students in a carnal way. In fact when Alcibiades tried to seduce Socrates, they spent their night together talking justice and virtue. It was Alcibiades whose plan to conquer Sicily could have won the Peloponnesian War for Athens. However, once Alcibiades had taken his supporters to war, the Assembly voted to have him arrested, tried for impiety, and executed. They sent a ship to bring him home. He chose not to go and fled to Sparta. There he instructed the Lacadaemonians in the techniques needed to defeat Athens. The Athenian army in Sicily was poorly led, and for political reasons, the people of Athens failed to support their troops on the battlefield. The result was the loss of their army and eventually Lysander took Athens, destroyed its fleet, striped it of its empire, and put it under the control of a puppet oligarchy. Two of the most infamous members of this corrupt government were Critias and Theramenes. Under their mis-leadership 1,500 Athenians were executed, and thousands more exiled from their city. They were also students of Socrates.

There were many who blamed Socrates for the misbehavior of his students. Socrates’ own actions did not engender affection among his fellow citizens. It had always been love-him or hate-him with the Athenians. For all his detractors, Socrates had many devoted disciples who sought to glorify his reputation, one such was Chaerephon. Chaerephon went to Delphi and asked the God if any man was wiser than Socrates. Pythia answered, “No man is wiser than Socrates.” Chaerephon spread the oracle’s pronouncement about the city. Socrates himself was surprised; for he only knew one thing – that he didn’t know anything.

At this point in the lecture I show my students a clip from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, one of the greatest movies of all time. The scene shows Bill and Ted collecting Socrates for their history report. Crouching in a corner of the Agora, they look Socrates up in their text book. Bill reads, “The foundation of all knowledge is knowing that you know nothing.” “That’s us dude!” Ted replies.


In 1985 we added a narrator. The aduance need a little background to help them get the point. Our narrator this Spring at NSC was James Coburn, now an instructor in Physics and Astronomy with USU. That's Dave Kirkham as the slave boy.

I played Meno, when not taking photos.

Dave really got into the part, he never does anything half-way.


Socrates determines that Apollo, and therefore Zeus, have issued a challenge to him to find a man wiser than himself. He sets out on a journey of discovery. He goes to those in the city who have reputations for wisdom, and asks them questions. It soon becomes obvious to Socrates, and to all who listen to the discussions, that these men really don’t know anything truly good or beautiful, but they think they do, and get very angry when he shows them how foolish they are. Thus, as he goes throughout the city asking questions, he makes many enemies. Among those most affronted are the disciples of Pythagoras. It is one of these, named Meno, who determines to take Socrates down. Meno comes to Socrates with a seemingly harmless question. The discussion of that question is the heart of the Platonic Dialogue call The Meno.


By 1986, we had drafted a new slave boy, Trent Warner.

Once more Athens his revitalized above Lake of the Woods.

.Before relating the Meno, I like to discuss the whole concept of leading questions. I was the debate coach at Layton High for eleven years. I coached mock trail and debate teams. My students who have studied law enough to participate in a Mock Trial know that there is a difference between direct and leading questions. You ask direct questions of your own witnesses, and they must elicit information that the witness provides himself. However, leading questions, asked of the witnesses from the other side of the case can be asked leading questions in which the answer is provided and all the witness has to do is say yes or no. There are many events in Competitive Debate. One is called Policy of Cross Examination Debate. Although justifiably fallen into some disrepute at this time, in the eighties and nineties it was the “big event”. The premise – developing policies to solve major problems facing our county, is noble, but it has long disintegrated into a game with little or no real world application. There even is a protracted series of statements and rebuttals presented by two teams of two speakers each.

The Affirmative team is tasked with presenting a plan to support a resolution provided for the entire country by the National Forensic League, (NFL) at the beginning of each summer. For months, teams develop carefully crafted plans which move the argument from harms and needs through workability and solvency. Everything is carefully documented, supported by “experts” with information gleaned from any number of briefing books supplied by various universities and debate material marketing groups out to make as much money as possible from high schools desperate for trophies. These elaborate plans must be presented in a short time limit, compelling the First Affirmative Speaker to spew information at a nonsensical rate of speed. None of the speech can be understood except the shouted tag lines at the beginning of each required segment of information. But all this is OK, for although the Judge may be desperately trying to follow the ludicrous regurgitation of information the Negative team is barely paying attention.

Once the First Affirmative Speaker has finished, usually near collapse from oxygen deprivation, having scarcely inhaled in eight minutes, one of the Negative team stands to Cross Examine the plan’s presenter. Amidst a litany of boring questions on points of procedure and structure a trap is set.

Here is an example. Let’s say that the resolution for the year is: Resolved, the United States Government should take action to curb the effects of global warming. The Affirmative plan begins by outlining the harms of global warming, then attempts to prove it exists, then that it is caused by something that the U. S. Government actually has control over, then that some actions can be developed, and that if that action is implemented there will be benefits, that the problems presented actually will and can be effected. After eight minutes of spew, the Negative Team’s questioner stands to Cross Examine. Many superfluous questions later he asks, “Does the Affirmative plan help the American economy?” The Affirmative speaker considers: green jobs, limited oil imports, improved technology, reduced energy consumption . . .” “Yes!” he answers. The other team member from the Negative, who until now has pretended to take notes on the opponent’s answers, smiles broadly and fetches a thick file folder from his battery of boxes and plops it down on the table. The trap was set and the victim has fallen in.

Once the questioning is over, the First Negative Speaker barely takes a moment of his preparation time. Stepping to the podium he looks the judge in the eye and begins, “before I get to the Affirmative case let me point out that during cross examination my opponent said that the plan would improve the American Economy. He then goes for the papers stacked in the Manila folder and begins.

“Here is a quote form Professor So-and-so of such-and-such a university that says if the American Economy strengthens it will threaten the growth of other major world economies.” He then reads the card at a rate of speed which no one in the room can understand; supposedly to give validity to the claim. “Two – here is a quote from Professor So-and-so of such-and-such university who says that increased stress will lead to adverse competition between economies.” Again the silly exercise of spewing unintelligible sounds. I have actually seen spectators break into laughter at such displays, but to the high school debater such well rehearsed mumblings are no laughing matter. “Three, here is a quote from Professor So-and-so, or perhaps Secretary So-and-so from President Obama’s cabinet, who says that competition will lead to protectionism.” More spew. “Four – here is evidence from Professor So-and-so from such-and-such that says protectionism leads to trade war. . . five a quote from some so-and-so that trade war always leads to real war, and finally a quote from Jimmy Carter who says that all war leads to nuclear war.” The Negative speaker, who has used almost all his time on this “before-I-get-to” exercise, proudly eyes the judge again. “If you vote for our opponent’s play it will lead to thermal nuclear war, an overwhelming disadvantage and far greater harm than anything that could possible be caused by global warming.” The remaining debate is a screed on the rules of Policy Debate and in the end the ballot goes negative.

Two hours later our Affirmative First Speaker faces another cross examination. “Does your plan improve the American economy?” he is asked. As my father always used to say: “fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me.” “No” is the Affirmative’s categorical reply. Again a smile on the face of the First Negative Speaker sitting at the table, again a tick fill hits the table. Once again the speech begins with a smile to the judge, who if he is a college debater, has already filled out the ballot.

“Before dealing with the plan let me point out that my opponent admits that the Affirmative’s plan does not improve the American Economy. Let me begin by quoting Professor So-and-so from such-and-such who says, ‘If the American Economy does not improve it will stagnate.” The Professor So-and-so of such and such who says that stagnated economies lead to recession, then Professor So-and-so who asserts unequivocally that recession leads to depression, that an American Depression would lead to war, and finally Jimmy Carter who tells us that all war leads to thermo nuclear war. If you vote for our opponent’s play it will lead to thermal nuclear war, an overwhelming disadvantage and far greater harm than anything that could possible be caused by global warming.”


In 1987, Doug, back from his mission to Denmark rejoins Leonard and Trent.

Today, this slave boy is an officer in the Coast Guard and a lawyer.

Meno, a disciple of Pythagoras, had been schooled by the Debate Coaches of the time, the Sophists who charged money to teach the young men of Athens how to argue on both sides of any subject and how to make the worst position sound the better. Meno’s trap question to Socrates is, “Can one teach virtue.” The trap is obvious, if Socrates says yes, then Meno will ask him why he doesn’t, why his students, Alcibiades, Critias, Theramenes, and others have turned into such monsters under his instruction. If Socrates say no, then Meno is ready to accuse him of wasting his time and that of the Citizens by his constant haranguing and delving after something which cannot be taught. But Socrates is no high school debater.

Socrates replies that he doesn’t think one can teach anything, that what we call teaching and learning are all remembering. Meno demands Socrates to teach him how this is. Socrates chides Meno for wanting to show him up in a contradiction, having just heard Socrates say there is no such thing as teaching, Meno now asks Socrates to teach? Meno apologizes, it was not what he meant, but would Socrates please show how this can be. It will not be easy Socrates warns, but as he cares for Meno he will try. He asks Meno to call up anyone of his many slave boys, and Socrates will show his point through them


By 1990, Curtis grow had taken Leonard's place as Assistant Camp Director, and as Socrates. Here he works with Mike Hopper as our Meno.

Mike is a real, live American Hero, serving in our countries military. Our slave boy that summer, Mike Hansen, is now a History Professor. How they do grow up!

At this point I always pick a student who will participate. I do ask them if they are a math whiz. I have seldom made that error, but it is worth avoiding. I usually get a bright, well liked kid with a good sense of humor. I caution the class to pay attention to see if they see me teaching anything, or just asking questions. The demonstration goes like this:

I tell my students that Socrates believed in the immortality of the soul. “Then, since the soul is immortal and often born, having seen what is on earth and what is in the house of Hades, and everything, there is nothing it has not learnt; so there is no wonder it can remember about virtue and other things, because it knew about these things before.”

“Don’t be afraid,” I tell my student “volunteer”, I’m on your side. There are no trick questions. Just answer honestly and you will be all right.”

I then draw a square on the board.

“Can we have a four sided space, with all side being equal?”


“And we call that space a square?”


“And a square can be any size.”


“Can this square be of any size?”



“For example, could we say this was a four foot square?”


“I then write the number 4 on the board.”

“Can we have a space twice this size?”


“And what is twice four feet?”


“Eight,” I repeat and write an 8 on the board. “Now, if this square is four feet and the double square is eight feet, how long will the side of the double square be? In other words if this side is two feet long, how long will the side of a square two times as big as this one be?”




Four, or double, is invariably the answer I get. In the early years I was afraid that this would not be the case, but in scores of tries over the years I can only recall one time the student gave another answer. (If he or she hesitates too long, I hint under my breath, it is after all only a demonstration, but this rarely happens.) I turn to the class and say, “Now we see how well this boy is getting on in his remembering? How many of you agree? Now follow me as we see if he has remembered rightly and what else we can discover.

“Now boy, you say we will get a double square if we add a double side. So we get the double side if we add two feet on here.” I draw a line extending from the top side of the square,



and add on two feet down here.”

I then draw out the new square. Is this the square you say should be double the four foot square?”

But can’t you see inside this square these four squares all the same size as our first square?



“And what is four times four?



I write sixteen on the board. “Is sixteen eight?


“So we do not get a double square from the double side?’


“So how long will the line be?” “It must be longer than this,” I indicate the two foot line, and shorter than this?” I put my fingers at the ends of the “four foot” line. “What will it be?” Over half the time the student says three; at other times he hesitates; I suggest three and he has inevitably agreed. “Three,” I repeat to the class, “See how this boy is getting on in his remembering. He did not know how long the side of the double space would be, now he thinks that he does know, let’s see how well he has remembered. So, I get three if I add on this much to this side.”

And a foot to this line, so.”


“And how big was our double space to be?”

“Eight square feet.”

“Let’s draw this square and count the feet. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, NINE; is nine, eight?”


“So the three foot line does not give us the eight foot space. So tell me what line will give me the double space, if you can’t name it, just show me.” And I offer the chalk. Almost every time the student will say, I don’t know. Again, if they hesitate I ask them, “do you know.” They will say no. I turn to the class. Now see how this boy has got along in his remembering. He did not know, but he did not know that he did not know. Now even as he does not know, he does not think that he does know. Is he better or worse off concerning the thing that he did not know that he did not know?” I always get a laugh here. Have we harmed this boy by helping him know that he did not know?

“No,” answers the class.

“No! Before he might have gone around telling all kinds of people that one gets a double space from a double side. If I would have asked him to build me a shed twice the size of the one I have I would have come home to find my whole back yard taken up with the barn he would have erected. If his little brother would have asked for help on his geometry homework he would have failed him. But now, even as he does not know he does not think that he does know and what will he be willing to do?” Do you think he will be willing to go on questioning until he does know the truth about the length of the side of the double space?” Do you want to know the truth?”

"Yes," the class says, and the “boy” ( I use girl students as well) agrees.

“Now, you watch me and see if I try to teach this boy anything or if I just ask questions.” I erase the board and start over.

"Now, boy, is this our four sided space?”


“And can we have another one the same size here?”


“And another here?”



“And can we fill in this corner down here with another one?’


“Boy, is not there a line that runs from this corner to that corner in every square. All lines are mental constructs, but we could draw a line from this corner to this couldn’t we?” I point to the corners as I ask.


“What do you think the professors of mathematics call this line?” Almost always the student will say a diagonal. If he does not I ask, “it runs diagonally across the square from here to here, what do you think it should be called?” They always say diagonal at this, or some helpful friend from the class, not wanting to see them suffer any more, will call it out for them.

“Now if this diagonal divides the box exactly in half, what is the exact half of four?”


“Two,” I say and write 2’s in the corners of the box. “So we have two, two foot spaces in each four foot square box.”

“Is there a diagonal that divides this box into two, two foot pieces?”



“And in this one?”


“And this.”


“Can you see how these lines make a square inside our bigger square?” I indicate both. “Isn’t this inner square made up of four of these two foot pieces?”


“And how much is four times two?”



“Eight,” and I write it on the board.


“And how big was our double space supposed to be?”


“So boy what line gives us the length of the side of the double of any square?”

“The diagonal.” he will invariably say. I lead the class in applause.

“Now class,” I continue. “We agreed that this boy did not know what line gave us a double square, but now he does know; did you observe me teaching him anything, or just asking questions?”

“Just asking questions.”

“And he brought the answers out of himself?’


“But isn’t to bring knowledge out of oneself remembering?”

We give the slave boy a big round of applause and send him back to his seat and I go on the explain to the class how Socrates proceeded. He next asks Meno to tell him what virtue is, and Meno gives his definition, which Socrates shoots down. He then asks him again, and he gives another answer, which Socrates destroys as surely as he destroyed the slave boy’s claim that a double line gives a double space. He then asks Meno again, “what virtue is.” But, what won’t Meno do? He will never admit that he does not know what virtue is. And what can he never learn? What virtue is, let alone whether or not it can be taught.

The wonder of this BSA Teaching Learning Method, as is the wonder of the Socratic Method, is that it makes the learner want to learn. As Socrates puts it, “. . . we have put him [the boy] into a difficulty, and like the sting ray we have made him numb . . . we have brought him a step onwards . . . For now he [will] go on contentedly seeking, since he does not know . . . then he would not have tried to find out or to learn what he thought he knew, not knowing until he tumbled into a difficulty by thinking he did not know and longed to know. . . so he gained by being numbed. . .” The beginning of all knowledge is knowing that one does not know.

This is the premise behind the quote I require all my students to memorize. I crafted it myself, and it appears at the Agora as our mission statement line. “In a world where absolute truth exists but cannot be known, one must live by reason and faith.” Knowing we can never know, we must live as if we did, and eagerly seek the better way.


Lysis said...

My son Shaun was quick to question the idea that one can find truth from within by asking questions. “How,” he demanded, “could one find out the capital of Russia by asking oneself the question?” he demanded. “No matter how many times or in what way I ask the question, I could not learn without a teacher.

Here is my answer. This is because the fact with reference to the name of the capital of Russia is not like the truth that a doubled square is measured by using the diagonal of the original square as the length of the side of the double square. This latter truth has always existed – even before there were men to recognize it; before there was a Russia or cities to be in it.

He replied, “So you say that the name of the capital of Russia is a human construct.” He is big on language as a human construct.

I found our little exchange a great example of how asking the right questions can enable one to bring new knowledge out of oneself.

Reach Upward said...

My first year on camp staff, I was tasked with teaching pioneering. Scouts were required to complete a back splice, an eye splice, and a short splice. I studied the merit badge pamphlet and looked at completed examples. But during the first week of camp, I still couldn't do it. I learned that I did not know how to splice. (Discovery)

Fortunately, Kent Summers came to my aid. He guided me through the process, spring-boarding off of other rope and engineering facts I did know. Before long, I realized that I did know how to do the splices. I became quite proficient at it. Even today I can whip out any of these splices quickly and with a fair degree of quality.

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