The three arguments Skoyles adduces to try to show that ideas are active seem to me either to fail or to miss the point. First, he says, 'Settle...can criticize me by showing that such things as teaching and learning do not exist.' I take him to mean that the very existence of teaching and learning proves that ideas propagate themselves and compete with each other. I think it does nothing of the kind, but I shall have to say more about what teaching and learning are in order to show this. Let me try, starting with learning.
Leave aside learning a skill, such as horseback riding or welding or surgery, to the extent that any of these go beyond the entertaining of ideas. Leave aside, too, the ideas involved where a learner might not be aware of having learnt them, as in the learning a golden retriever does in order to qualify as a seeing-eye dog. And leave aside all rotelearning where some behavioral repertoire, including the recitation of perhaps meaningful words, is rendered routine. (I do not here include an actor's learning his or her part, unless, unhappily, performance becomes routine.) Perhaps we should also leave aside all learning that results in enhanced aesthetic appreciation. I am trying to narrow things down to the learning of ideas that might count as knowledge, particular or general, empirical or theoretical.
Given this narrowness, we can now say that a person can only actually learn what is true, though often people will say something has been learned which is merely thought true. Learning has all the problems knowledge has, in this respect. But learning is not merely knowing. It has affinities with understanding, which is a grasp of the interconnections of things and ideas with each other, and involves the resolution of puzzles or problems.
But how does a person get ideas? Where do they come from? How do they enter the mind (if I may be permitted to use the term)? 'Come from' and 'enter' are spatial terms, which can only be used here metaphorically or analogically, if we are not to localize ideas, and I want to be cautious about localizing ideas. So let us try a different tack. When a person has an idea, when an idea, as it were, comes to him or her, we can certainly say that the person comes to think something so. Let us ask, then, how does a person come to think something or other so? There are obviously many different answers, of which three kinds are very important: perception (including proprioception); somebody else voicing or writing a sentence which expresses an idea; or a person may come up with an idea himself or herself, with or without some kind of external prompting such as being presented with a problem. I should like to know Skoyles's views on this subject, but my view is that my coming up with an idea myself is of absolute centrality to learning.
Whenever anyone says anything to me, or I read something, quite out of the ordinary - a new poem, say, or a new theory in science - I feel my imagination at a stretch trying to come up with ideas that will match the words I have just encountered. Sometimes I cannot manage it. The poem remains obscure; or I do not understand the theory. Or understanding may be partial. In my view, the skill of imaginatively coming up with ideas that match verbal intake is absolutely central to even the learning and use of language, including body language. It is true, some kinds of signals may trigger fairly tightly wired reflexes. ('Wired' is a metaphor.) Shouts of warning, say, or of anger. The rapid approach of a flying object. The sudden falling away of the ground in front of one. But the meanings of most utterances do not make such direct connection with the nervous system. We have to invent meanings to make sense of our intake. Intake we are used to does not require fresh invention, just recollection. This is why learning is taxing and why imaginative people are your best listeners, unless you are a boring raconteur.
On this account of learning, there cannot be any guarantee that a meaning taken from something seen or heard is the meaning intended by the utterer. If you want to be sure you have understood correctly, you have to test you comprehension by saying or doing something yourself which should have one result if you were right and another if not (provided the meaning of your utterance was correctly grasped). And if you want to be sure that the meaning of your own utterances has been grasped, you will set tests for your auditors which, if you are skilled at testing, they can pass only if they have understood what you said. (As all examiners know, there is the dreaded risk that examinees who did understand the matter at hand can still fail the test, for other reasons. There is no ready way to obviate this.)
Learning to speak a language, learning how a machine works or what the composition of some substance is, or what the nature of some dimly apprehended regularity in natural occurrences is, all require the same method: imaginative trial coupledwith a sensitivity to the trial's effects that will let you know whether you were right. One can define successful communication as where the ideas the hearer comes up with are more or less the same as the ideas the utterer was trying to get across. Both utterer and hearer are active. The utterer finding words that hopefully will trigger the intended idea; the hearer looking for meanings that will satisfy the utterance. But throughout, it is people who are active, not ideas. On the account I am giving, people propagate ideas by actions designed to prod hearers into coming up with replica-ideas. The ideas do not propagate themselves. The ideas themselves are passive.
Teaching, given this model of learning, becomes an exercise in providing circumstances most conducive to the student's imaginatively inventing the ideas he or she is supposed to be learning. Learning is fundamental and goes forward more by the energy of the learner than by the energy of the teacher.
So, I can firmly believe both in teaching and learning without any commitment whatsoever to the idea that ideas are active.