“The mind,” Plutarch is said to have said, “is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” This pithy formulation seems to have been distilled at some point from Plutarch’s lecture, entitled On Listening to Lectures, in which, as the Loeb translation has it, he writes:
For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth (De Recta Ratione Audiendi, 18, 47, c).
Plutarch thus emphasizes that education requires active listening, because learning is not merely the passive reception of information. The metaphor of kindling points to learning as an active process, and teaching becomes a matter of nurturing independent thinking and cultivating a desire for truth.
There can be little doubt that the transition from print to digital culture through which we are living has sparked a revolution in literacy that is exerting enormous pressure on traditional practices of pedagogy. As Donald Clark has suggested in his TEDxGlasgow talk, there as been more pedagogic change in the last 10 years than the previous 1000. Strangely enough, however, the pedagogical practices Plutarch advocated almost 2000 years ago seem more germane to a digital culture of pedagogical creativity and collaboration than does the dystopian image below:
This postcard, imagined and illustrated by French artist Villemard for a series titled “Utopie” in which he envisioned life in Paris in the year 2000, depicts education as the uploading of information. Here books are ground into a digital pulp and, returning to Plutarch’s simile, the minds of the students are filled like bottles.
Sadly, of course, this is precisely the sort of pedagogical practice one encounters every semester in thousands of classrooms around the world. It is difficult to see how this model of education can inspire the independent thinking and ardent desire for truth of which Plutarch eloquently spoke so many years ago.
But as we adopt new practices of pedagogy adapted to the new affordances for collaborative teaching and learning offered us by digital technologies, we will do well to recall regularly, and repeat frequently, the final words of Plutarch’s lecture on listening to lectures. There he enjoins us …
… to cultivate independent thinking along with our learning, so that we may acquire a habit of mind that is not sophistic or bent on acquiring mere information, but one that is deeply ingrained and philosophic, as we may do if we believe that right listening is the beginning of right living.
Plutarch. Plutarch: Moralia, Volume I. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Loeb Classical Library, 1927.
The Villemard image is used with permission from Tom Wigley (aka amphalon on Flickr). Here is his set of Villemard’s 1910 postcards on Flickr.