By Teaching, We Learn… and Vice Versa

In his early 20s, Henry Hazlitt spent his days at The Wall Street Journal learning the journalism profession and his evenings pursuing a passion project. As he later recollected:

“Every evening—in all the time I could spare, anyway, from dancing and entering dance contests—I was secretly writing a book with the ambitious title of Thinking as a Science.”

By Teaching, We Learn

Just as ambitious was the book’s objective: to teach people how to think better. But as Hazlitt related, his initial target audience was himself.

“I primarily wanted to teach myself how to think more efficiently, independently, and, if possible, originally. I had already sensed that ‘he who teaches, learns.’”

Here Hazlitt paraphrased the Latin proverb docendo discimus (“by teaching, we learn”) which the Stoic philosopher Seneca expressed as, “Men learn while they teach.”

This ancient wisdom has been seconded by modern researchers, who have called the psychological phenomenon “the protégé effect.”

Hazlitt explained how writing to teach ideas to readers helps us more fully learn those ideas ourselves:

“When we write out our ideas, we are at the same time testing, developing, arranging, crystallizing, and completing them. We imagine ourselves not only making these ideas clear to others, but making them seem as important to others as they do to ourselves. So we try to make what was vague in our minds precise and definite; what was implicit, explicit; what was disconnected, unified; what was fragmentary, whole. We frame a generalization, then try to make it as plausible as we can; we try to think of concrete illustrations of it. And as we do this, we also expose it to ourselves—and sometimes, alas, find that it is empty, untenable, or sheer nonsense.”

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Hazlitt’s evening explorations bore considerable fruit. Thinking as a Science was Hazlitt’s debut as a published author at age 22. He recalled:

“Yes, the thing was published—and it sold, too. In fact, it outsold anything I have since written except Economics in One Lesson and Will Dollars Save the World?

That his book sold well indicates that it created educational value for readers. Hazlitt wrote the book to teach himself how to think better and as a result created something that effectively taught others how to think better as well. What started as a learning exercise became a successful teaching endeavor.

Thus began Hazlitt’s long and massively impactful career as a popular educator. He taught the public through his many books and his innumerable articles in such periodicals as The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Freeman. His book Economics in One Lesson has taught more people sound economics than perhaps any other single book in history.

Hazlitt’s passion for working out the truth and “learning out loud” shines through in his writing. This “student” mindset is what made Hazlitt such a great teacher.

When we teach to learn—when we express our ideas with the aim of “testing, developing, arranging, crystallizing, and completing them” for ourselves—it makes our expression more organized, complete, and clear for others.

This may be regarded as the flip-side of “the protégé effect.” Not only is it true that by teaching, we learn, but that by teaching to learn, we teach well.

Many do not teach to learn and teach poorly as a result. They are not trying to test, develop, arrange, crystallize, and complete the ideas for themselves, and their expression of those ideas ends up haphazard, incomplete, and opaque to others as a result.

Examples include those who communicate to show off their erudition, to “win” an argument through sheer rhetoric, to manipulate, to brainwash, or to police thought. Devoted students make good teachers. Know-it-alls, sophists, demagogues, indoctrinators, and inquisitors do not.

Learning Is Contagious

As Leonard Read wrote, and both Read and Hazlitt exemplified:

“People quite naturally, are fascinated with, interested in, attracted to those who concentrate on seeking truth.”

Those people then naturally become inspired to follow along the truth seeker’s quest (as it is expressed in writing or speech) and to make it an embarkation point for their own learning journeys. That is why, as Read advised:

“Explanations of what is discovered should be made in speech and writing not as a means of repairing others but as the most effective way to increase personal exploratory powers, and—possibly—inspire others.”

Explain to explore, teach to learn, and you will both learn and teach well.

Related Essays by this Author

The post By Teaching, We Learn… and Vice Versa was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.

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