From Student To Teacher and Back

One of the clearest, most fundamental quotes I’ve ever heard on the subject of knowledge was uttered by Plato:

“This I know – that I know nothing”

It may have been said by Socrates, or Democritus, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve seen similar quotes attributed to both of them. George Santayana expanded on this when he said:

“The wisest mind has something yet to learn.”

There is so much to learn, and not enough time to learn it. I’ve said before that I try to learn something new every day. So, I have always tried to live my life on the assumption that I am perpetually a student. One of the reasons I blog on the subject of atheism is because I feel I’m only on the cusp of learning exactly what atheism is, but more importantly, what atheism means, and what its potential is for the human condition, especially mine. So I write about those things that strike my fancy, matters that I want to explore, and learn more about. At the risk of repeating myself, I don’t write for others, I write for myself. The process of putting my thoughts down on paper the computer screen is cathartic, and synaptically fruitful. I force myself to organize my thoughts, and in the process, I focus on the heart of whatever matter I’m writing about in a way that clarifies and sharpens my understanding of it. Sometimes I feel that when I’m done, my brain feels stronger, much like when I lift weights, my muscles gain tone and strength. So for me, blogging is a way to increase my knowledge and understanding.

Lately I’ve been getting this sense that I’m no longer a student, and I don’t know what to make of it. I guess it’s a natural progression in the process of learning, that as we gain more and more knowledge on a subject, the natural inclination is to pass it on. So I feel that that is exactly what I’m doing, to a certain extent, anymore. I’m passing on what I know to others, and I’m finding that I enjoy it.

I’m not saying that I’ve learned everything there is to know about atheism, and that I‘m no longer a student. That would clearly be wrong. As the above quotes imply, I’ll probably die having touched on only a small portion of the knowledge out there. But I’ve noticed in debating or commenting on the subject, a newfound confidence in my ability to hold my own. Where I used to have trepidations about jumping into a discussion, I now feel knowledgeable enough to plow right in. I still get my head handed to me on occasion, metaphorically speaking, but it doesn’t bother me, nor does it stop me. I noticed this recently when discussing the subject on a Usenet group (for those who know me, the same one I had my “a ha” moment on that I refer to here) and I found that as I wrote, my confidence and my ability to convince others had increased a good bit. In short, I felt what I imagine a teacher feels when she is able to impart a particular sense of knowledge to her students, and feels that she has succeeded, in some small way, in accomplishing her mission.

A good teacher, I presume, knows that he doesn’t know everything. A good teacher knows that he can learn something, no matter how small or insignificant, from his students. A good teacher doesn’t get smug, feeling that he has reached the pinnacle of knowledge, that there is nothing new that he can learn.

Those who think they know it all are very annoying to those who do.

As funny as that is, there’s a grain of truth in it. The know-it-all is annoying, because you know he can’t be taught anything new. I try to keep an open mind, and accept that my knowledge is provisional, that it can be replaced with new knowledge when appropriate. This is actually one of the tenets of critical thinking – the ability to shed knowledge, or beliefs, when better knowledge shows up. And critical thinking is at the heart of atheism.

So I guess in some sense I’m now a teacher. And still a student. The line between the two is hazy, but that’s OK. I can be learning and teaching at the same time, and as a result, become a better person for it.

By now you’ve figured out that I’ve been perusing my Quotationary. Robert Reich once said:

There are two kinds of people: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.

I strive to be one of the former.

25 thoughts on “From Student To Teacher and Back

  1. Thank you for a wonderful post. I plan on showing it to my children (14 & 17) tonight. As my son prepares for college (following (sort of) in my footsteps (he wants to be a high school history teacher (which is not that far from historical interpretation)) to study the Liberal Arts, I feel it is important for him to see college as an opportunity to explore new areas (despite majoring in history, I managed to squeeze in four semesters of (of all things) glass-blowing (fun)).

    One of the reasons I read blogs is to expand my horizons. I know that I have a very narrow (not as narrow as some, obviously) viewpoint on reality. Following a link from Crooks and Liars over to Atheist Revolution introduced me to atheism blogging. From vjack’s great site, I discovered your Spanish Inquisitor site (and others). From the sensei (wise ones, teachers, fellow travelers, fellow learners) I have learned a very important thing about myself, and this post of yours speeks to it eloquently:


    I was very comfortable describing myself as an agnostic, leaning towards atheist (as well as interpreter, father, husband, liberal, veteran (non-combat), writer (amateur), model builder, semi-computer geek, pipe smoker, human being, mammal, primate, knife collector, etc. (in other words, agnosticism was not the center of my life)). I knew that I was ignorant about modern atheistic and areligious thought (I have some experience studying early christianity (back when there were truly different ideas and it was interesting)), but I had fallen into a trap of thinking that not knowing did not affect me. I should know better.

    The essays, quotes, news stories and rants on these pages has led me to a re-examining. Who am I? What am I?

    In short, these pages have brought me, at least partially, from one of “those who don’t know they don’t know” to one of “those who don’t know.”

    As I read more (on the internet and in print) and write more, I have moved more into the atheist camp (neat tents, by the way). I don’t know where my journey (or anyone else’s, for that matter) will end. But it’s gonna be one fun journey.

    Anyway, yes, you are a teacher as well as a student. I am learning (and it only takes one student to create a teacher (and I hope there are many more students out there)). I hope to someday become a teacher, but I have only over the past month begun to realize how much I don’t know about atheism.

    Again, sorry for the long post. Occupational hazard.

  2. Here’s something to ponder. If you put everything there is to know on a scale from one to 100, where do you think we are now. Anything we think we know that’s wrong would have to be subtracted.

    I think we may be at the point were we now know more that’s right than wrong. So I’d say we’re at least in positive territory.

    What do you think?

  3. Well, SI, it’s almost a truism that a good teacher learns from his or her students. By “good teacher” I mean someone who is really trying to communicate. When you, SI, are in teaching mode, you’re a very good teacher, indeed. And, as a result, a very good student at the same time.

    In attempting to reach people as you teach them, a good teacher constantly has to refashion and reword his or her own knowledge and ideas. Each new “student” requires a slightly different approach, so the good teacher is constantly put in a position of rethinking and reevaluating.

    I think many of us are fortunate, here in the Atheosphere, that our posts lead to comment threads that challenge, expand on, or embellish our original ideas. Like you, I can’t exactly place myself on the student-teacher continuum. But also like you, I think that wherever I fall on that imaginary line, is just where I want to be.

  4. SI – I do declare… I believe you have moved beyond the “excitable years” of your atheism. Now, just don’t get as grumpy as Ric.!

    I feel much the same as Exterminator once indicated – I’ve heard all of the arguments for and against atheism so many times that I would probably find it all quite boring if not for the fact that 4/5th of our fellow humans still can’t see the light. In that regard, I guess I kind of feel like a “know it all”, (though I still get the occasional surprise). I definitely see myself more as a “teacher” in this realm.

    I guess the biggest difference between you and me is that I sit here at peace and let them come to me. I think you may yet be a bit of a starry-eyed teacher, out to save the theists from themselves!

    Now, it is everything that goes with atheism that makes life the endless learning experience! And without the atheistic position, much of it would be virtually meaningless.

  5. “To know that you know what you know and that you do not know what you do not know– that is true wisdom.” — Confucius.

    So long as you are charitable with what you know, willing to accept that you may be wrong, and aware that you still have a lot to learn, you will always be a good teacher and a good student. Ideally, in any conversation or endeavor, you should be willing, ready, and able to do both and even to change roles.

    Honestly, you guys have already been some of the best teachers I’ve found, and that’s precisely because you still have the attitude of being students.


  6. Everyone has heard the “He who knows and knoews/knows not…” Arabic one, I’m pretty sure.

    As another disabled vet (me: combat) and military brat, I’ve found that knowledge evolves quite often, and learning is forever.

    I did very poorly in school. Hated almost every second of it. But school had very little to do with learning useful things to me.

    I am a harpist, going on age sixty one I started at age forty seven. My teacher will be eighty nine this month, she started learning the harp when she was eight. I was giving a performance at which she was present, and a person asked me how long it takes to learn the harp. I told him when I was done I’d let him know. I pointed to my teacher and told him to ask her how much I’d learned. She told me it was the best answer she’d ever heard to that question at my next lesson.

    I deal a lot with kids, and they tend a lot to be grade oriented, or they learn something and then forget it. They took the test, passed a gate, now on to the next gate. Building on knowledge and memory seems hard to them. I tell the ones I’m teaching about horses, “there was never a horse that couldn’t be rode, never a rider who couldn’t be throwed.” That one usually gets imprinted on them in an unforgettable way, sooner or later.

    Music? Well, I just use a tape recorder.

    But I think it is attributed to Will Rogers, about the unease about the unknown. He said that it wasn’t what we don’t know that worried him, it was what we kew that Wasn’t so that was the problem.

  7. Great post, SI.

    As you know, I’m a newcomer to both atheism and the atheosphere. It took me several months to start my own atheist blog, even though I’d been reading atheist blogs and loving them. When I first encountered the atheosphere, I toyed with the idea of starting my own blog but felt that I wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to add in an arena that is filled with so many intelligent, articulate writers. I was frankly overwhelmed by the quality of thought and expression that fills much of the atheosphere. It took me months to even start adding comments to anyone else’s blogs. I’m so new to atheism that I don’t see myself as imparting any wisdom to people. I still have an awful lot to learn myself.

    I see my blog as a place for me to chronicle my process, from a fairly early point, of leaving Christianity and reaching an understanding of atheism as the starting point of a philosophy. It’s a place where I can try on new ideas to see how well they fit me. In that sense, I’m writing primarily for myself. But my blog is also a place where I can connect with some of the folks I’ve met in the atheosphere, a place where I can set the tone and topic of the conversation or answer questions others may have for someone in my position. My blog is a place where, by posting my ideas and interacting with others, I hope that the vets and the newbies among us can learn together. I think your blog is that kind of place too.

  8. Chaplain said: I toyed with the idea of starting my own blog but felt that I wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to add in an arena that is filled with so many intelligent, articulate writers. I was frankly overwhelmed by the quality of thought and expression that fills much of the atheosphere. It took me months to even start adding comments to anyone else’s blogs.

    Anyone else thinking like I am? What is this woman gonna be like in about 10 years? SHE was “overwhelmed”… by us! Chaplain, I’ve been an atheist for nearly 35 years. You make me feel like I can’t write about it. Not that it’s necessarily the focus of my attention. It has been a bit more lately just from interacting with our fellow bloggers in the Atheosphere. But I mix in a lot of other stuff – particularly science related. But STILL… you are a ball of fire. You might as just come and and declare yourself to friends and family because I KNOW you are going to!

  9. Billy said:

    I plan on showing it to my children (14 & 17) tonight.

    Thank you. That makes me feel even more like a teacher.


    I saw your question last night, but I held off answering because I kept getting two different answers. I still feel that way, after pondering it for the night. On the one hand, I want to say that we humans have made great strides in knowledge, and that while we’re far from knowing everything, it seems we’ve narrowed down the categories of knowledge. So in that sense, we’ve learned quite a bit of all there is to know. Putting a percentage on it is impossible.

    On the other hand, a piece of me wants to say that because there is so much out there in the universe that we can’t even get close enough to test, observe, or analyze, perhaps we haven’t even touched on the vast body of knowledge out there.

    So this is a good place to say – I don’t know.

    And Father Guido is always appreciated. Especially the Law School degree. 🙂


    As a teacher, I’m not sure I’m so good. I think sometimes these posts get a little too introspective, which make me a good student, but a good teacher…?


    Hmmm. So the excitable years are over? That was fast.


    For a 1st year freshman, you make a good grad student.


    Whether you realize it or not, in some small way, we’re all teachers. Don’t forget the lurkers.

    Sarge said:

    I did very poorly in school. Hated almost every second of it. But school had very little to do with learning useful things to me.

    Despite having a graduate level education, I feel that for the most part, I’m self-taught, so I know the feeling.

    Thanks everyone.

    I was a bit worried about this post. Still too much of a student, I guess. You made it worthwhile.

  10. I think what is a great trait of the atheosphere is the selfless exchange of knowledge. People don’t speak in absolutes, of things that can’t be questioned, of blind faith in ideas and perhaps equally important, people don’t seem to share their knowledge purely to show off how much of it they have. Each of us may know a thing or two another doesn’t, but through discussion we all grow. It’s a a very reciprocal experience, not just in trading one nugget of knowledge for another with someone but more importantly I think anyone who passes on knowledge gains immeasurably in the giving. First of course is the reinforcement of the knowledge by sharing it, then there are the questions and challenges that come from those who you share it with and finally, as is often the case in the atheosphere, there’s the new knowledge gained from seeing what others do with the knowledge you shared. I know the latter is something that’s tickled me recently seeing people post articles of a worth far beyond the silly things I wrote to which they claimed were the inspirations for their articles! How cool is that?

  11. I’ve written about it before, but I heard a very good explanation of knowledge and learning.

    One of my hobbies is flint-knapping and I make projectile points, stone tools, and also things like atlatls and darts. We were stationed in southeast Alabama, and we found quite a few points and other relics right where we lived. My oldest son found one of the prettiest points I’ve ever seen when he was six years old.

    Not long afterward we went to Virginia to visit my parents and one of their neighbors, a college instructor, asked if I would give a demonstration for his class. He knew about my son’s find and said to bring my son and the point.

    I was demonstrating technique, telling why, and the prof would ask my son what was going on, and he would explain as well. He seemed to involve my son quite a bit.

    At the end of the demo there was a question/answer period, and he sat my son on his desk and asked him to show the point he’d found. It got ooohed and aaahed over, and the prof asked him about it…then where it came from.

    The answer was that the Creek indians made it long ago…and they’d left it the night before for him to find. This brought down the house.

    Prof didn’t laugh. Quieted everyone and asked my son when we’d left Alabama. It was less than a week, but “a long time ago”. to my son. Other entities which left good things included the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Santa. Prof noted that he based his conclusions on observed phenomenon, and had made a pretty good theory for a six year old. He actually knew indians and knew why I was doing what I did during the demonstration. They did not.

    He pointed out that as my son got new information and grew he would discard the parts of his theory which were not demonstrably true. He urged them to do the same, not cling to ideas and theories which were outgrown or shown to be false. He said he could throw one of the chips out the window and it would bounce off three of his colleagues who defended such things even though new information was available.

  12. Ah, so I’m not stupid – I just don’t know that I know what I don’t know about what I know, and when I didn’t know it, not to mention who I didn’t know it with. I’m greatly relieved, Spanqi. Did I mention I have a headache?

    Evo, whaddya mean ‘grumpy as Ric’? The world needs more grump, less pollyanna. Let’s not be holding out for hope. I mean, puh-leeze, look around. In the future I’ll be writing songs about my legend in my own mind.

    But seriously (oh damn, spare me from my serious side, please), you’ve got the question nailed down – uncritical belief would have us still living in caves, or maybe nicely decorated stone huts, evidenced by the number of people living in the damp, dank, unchanging caves of their minds. They’re not even having good sex. It’s us haters, us grumps, us Lions of knowing not knowing who will lead humanity into the light of reason and sanity, or possibly into the light from the streetlight the cave dwellers hang us from.

    More Nyquil, more Nyquil!

  13. BTW Spanqi, I’m not so keen on the new theme anymore. Too much white space, too broad a line, less easy to read. Pretty, but…

    Marin has got a version 1.4 out that’s a little tighter, but it still doesn’t cut it for psycho-optical traditionalists like me.

  14. It’s kind of funny, SI. I don’t do it as much as I once did, but I figure I spend more time willingly in schools presenting programs during one year than I did my entire time
    in the system” when I was a student. If my late father is actually in a place where he can see me, he’s got an ass, and he can laugh, he’s probably laughing it off at me, remembering how I tried to wriggle out of it and how much I hated it. I would have left high school if the girl I was dating (we’ve been married 39 years +) hadn’t told me she wouldn’t see me anymore if I didn’t keep on and finish.

    Funny thing is, some of the best, well only teachers I had (most of the others were warders, gate keepers) were ones that actively disliked me. Others inspired. One told my father that if he had his way kids like me would simply be taken out and shot. Oh, I wasn’t a JD, punk or bully, I just, in his own words, “won’t accept the fictions and injustice needed for any system to work.” and he regarded that as dangerous. After my father retired from the army he became a school teacher, he said that he saw this thought as rather widely spread.

    The civil war band reeenactment group I’m a member of usually has a few good laughs at my expense. There are three school teachers in this group, and they had quite a hoo-hah when we were at Gettysberg this past summer. People come from all over the world, and we are in the “petting zoo” and also perform in the event tents. I usually speak German quite frequently, and usually have to do Esperanto every once in a while. Usually it’s people from India or Finland I use that with. We demonstrate instruments and play, and talk about life back then, and this year several people asked me where I taught school. Then I had to wait, patting a foot, slapping my leg with my directors baton, until the musicians stopped howling with laughter and were able to breathe again and perform.

    We also perform religious music for religious services and I must arrange the music and conduct it. Comes with the terretory, I always have a novel or something to read in my score book so I don’t get bored for the hour. Last fall one such preacher came up afterward, and we invited him to eat lunch with us, and he asked where we’d gotten our church music. He hadn’t ever heard what we played performed by a band. He was told that I had arranged them for the group, and he said that they should think themselves fortunate that they had such a christian man of such strong faith as a director. This was greeted with initial silence, then hilarity. He then inquired, “You’re Jewish?” which caused even more. He didn’t press for more.

  15. Spanqi,

    I think you can only use the themes here, with modificiations if you want to delve into CSS. The new version of The Journalist is already in Themes so you can get it there.

  16. I think I’m using the new version of Journalist. It’s the only one with that name on my Presentation page. I wish we could go out and use some of the one’s on the net, available for free, but then we’d have to open our wallets, and we can’t have that.

  17. Sarge:

    I am an interpreter. One of the ones out there lucky enough to be able to make a living giving tours. I am frequently asked where I teach (or taught). My response is that I teach here, in a National Park. Your description of being in the ‘petting zoo’ (I do some living history interpretation and I WILL remember that one) is very similar. The next time you are asked that, look ’em straight in the eye, and say, “I teach here.” Pause for a moment, then follow it up with, “I teach anywhere and anytime someone will listen to me expound on a subject about which I know.” And that includes postings on blogs. (You too, SI).

  18. Apologies, Spanqi. I do believe the theme available to WP is 1.3, but Marin has created 1.4, which looks slightly better, but still doesn’t meet my impossibly high standards of readability. (Well, I have to have high standards in something!)

  19. Billy, I was out west visiting a son last spring, and one of the places we went was to the Donner Pass. There were several school groups there, and I was making some purchases and asked the ranger if I could buy at least one of the kids. She asked why, somewhat alarmed, and I said that it was traditional and prudent for one to carry emergency rations in that area, was it not? She got a chuckle, but a voice behind me said she thought it could be arranged. It was one of the teachers, she said I had to take a minimum of three and SHE got to pick them.

  20. Sarge:

    I always tell parents (and teachers) that they must leave with the same number of kids they brought. Doesn’t have to be the same ones, but the same number. Then I (depending on the reaction) mention that they should be careful. If someone is willing to make a bargain, there may be a reason.

  21. SI, not only is there so much we can never know, but there is so much we do know that we end up forgetting, so it’s almost like we’re running to stand still.

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