Right to speak the truth – Screwtape, Socrates, Confucius & Corinthians.

I’m writing this in response to a wonderful blog by @faynichollsBed.  She has written asking a deep question; ‘When has one earned the right to tell the truth?’   This is a really measured piece and skilfully recognises the difference between challenging ethos and values of ‘teachers’ and challenging the style and ability of those delivering it.

Moral Authority to ask questions:

I am going to address these issues using Theology  – this may be flawed, I didn’t really pay attention to many of the thousands of sermons I have listened to because I either disagreed with the point being made or was irritated by the delivery of the speaker.  Which rather goes to illustrate my point, what right did I have to critique their style?

I am taking of the pieces of theological writing of C.S. Lewis, ‘The Screwtape Letters’  Particularly Letter 16 ‘The dangers of church shopping and criticism’.  I think there are parallels to be drawn with learning in secular fields in this letter.  The premise of the Screwtape letters is that they are correspondence between a senior ‘demon’ , Screwtape and his junior mentee, Wormwood, who is seeing field action for the first time with the mission to distract a young Christian from developing his faith.  It is satirical, the ‘Enemy’ is in fact God.  The premise is that the best way to stop development in the ‘patient’ is to befuddle, confuse, and eventually corrupt a person rather than to tempt.


How does this line up with a teaching and learning context? To draw some loose connections;

So, what students do when faced with varying modes of pedagogy and command of a subject by their lecturers is to slip into the habit of critiquing their delivery or fall into indifference.  Either way the work of the demon is done, because the student is no longer engaging with the learning but evaluating the style and knowledge of the teacher. The other risk is that students allow themselves to be drawn to those who make them feel comfortable, and reject the challenge of learning from others.  Again the focus has been removed from the discipline of learning about the subject and focussed on the sense of ‘gratification’ of the learner.  In other words, the credibility of a teacher might be based on the way they make students feel, rather than their ability to make them think.

To answer the first part of the when can I disagree with a lecturer question;  first ask oneself if this is about the subject or the experience.  If it is the former, then a respectfully challenging question rather than a direct challenge is always appropriate.

Authority to challenge Knowledge or rightness:

I read a journal article by Tweed comparing Socratic with Confucian learning several years ago.  I found it a challenging read and was struck by the concepts within it.

Socrates: Provoked learning by prodding his students, by using questions to expose flaws in knowledge, It occurs to me that he may in fact be the father of the ‘coaching gravy train’ (A subject for a future Elephant in the room Post at a future date).

Confucius: Was a relentless instructor and  was anxious that his pupils were not merely to parrot the words of authorities, but to truly understand and be reformed by the knowledge contained in those words. ( Tweed, R)

The long and short of this is that when a student is working with  a lecturer, they should identify what ethos the lecturer operates under, any lecturer with Socratic style will welcome any debate, but may not be merciful in the corrections of misconceptions.  A lecturer with Confucian style will expect equal understanding and dedication to a subject before being challenged.

Are you a clanging bell?

I’m heading into scripture now;

1 Corinthians 13 v 1-7:

1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

My analogy is this:

First how does one ‘love’ a subject, this is where I refer back to Confucius, who effectively said that before one has the authority to question any knowledge base, then one must have devoted oneself to understanding it fully first…..in other words, and stretching the analogy; ‘fallen in love with what exists’.

To gain the authority to question the knowledge of a Lecturer, a student must ‘love’ their subject more than they do.  I am suggesting that if a student does not, they sound like a clanging hollow bell(v1), which can be jarring on the ear of the listeners.  It does not matter how firmly the student holds their view, what acts of self sacrifice they appear to make, unless they ‘love’ the subject, they lack authority (v2&3). The passage then goes on to define the attributes a true disciple of knowledge will display towards that knowledge in order to truly ‘love’ it.

Shades of Grey:

Many people who do not truly ‘love’ their subject present what is a point of view as a fact, education is a field of views, opinions and theories, not absolutes.  Nothing is ‘right’, it is only the most sensible opinion given the context and culture of the situation.  Sometimes it is enough for the student to know themselves that what is being presented as black or white is in fact a shade of grey, it doesn’t need to be pointed out to the presenter.


Fay’s question was: ‘when will I be free to give my opinion 100% truthfully?’

My answer is to apply these tests and then decide:

  1. Are you being a connoisseur of delivery?
  2. Are you speaking with Socrates or Confucius?
  3. Are you in danger of being a clanging bell?
  4. What will be gained by the challenge?

You have ‘fallen in love’ with your discipline, dedicate yourself to perusing that with unfailing effort and then, one day, you will know what to say and when to say it.

Until then, ask respectful but skilfully disruptive questions:

Ask for clarity, direction to further reading, ask for recommendations of further theorists, other examples to amplify the point, explanations of things you have seen that differ from the message being expounded.  You can express your disagreement without telling them they are wrong, which is actually just a different shade of grey.

3 thoughts on “Right to speak the truth – Screwtape, Socrates, Confucius & Corinthians.

  1. A really interesting post. Too often discussions of education are confined within their own sphere, so I find your use of theology to discuss this refreshing and thought provoking.

    I have two ‘respectfully challenging questions’ here:

    Firstly I wonder if initial teacher education is slightly different than some areas of education in that as the students are learning to be teachers they need to engage both with the subject matter of the learning, and the delivery methods. I get your point about this in some cases distracting from the learning that is planned for a session, but I think the learning about pedagogy from engaging with the methods of their teachers is actually an important part of this particular area of study. What are your thoughts on this?

    I find the equation of love with understanding quite difficult. It seems a useful analogy in terms of Confucian learning (and I now need to read more on this), but I am not sure how far you are pushing the analogy? Do you have to understand something to love it? I can think of some things I have loved without having the faintest understanding of…

    I am left with questions about my own thinking, an experience of two areas I know very little about, and an impetus to follow up and learn more. Thanks!

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