Arrowsmith on the Teacher

At the end of my first year of teaching at St. Michael’s College in Vermont (1967-68), Dr. William Arrowsmith, Professor of Classics at the University of Texas, gave the following talk on teaching at the dedication of the (then new) Durick Library. I had never heard anything like it, and these ideas inspired and sustained me during my subsequent 45 years as a university professor.

Class of 1968 and ladies and gentlemen:

Our purpose here this afternoon is to commemorate the dedication of this library to a great teacher, a man whose life profoundly shaped the lives and minds and imaginations of many of you here. To your private commemorations of Professor Durick, rich with personal experience and gratitude, there is nothing I can add. I did not have the good fortune of knowing him personally, nor of even knowing those who knew him. So I stand at a special remove from the radiant circle of your affections and his, an invited stranger, privileged by distance and detachment to speak about the man we are honoring today—you, under the name of Professor Durick and I, under other names inferring of him what I know of them.

In either case, it is the same essential man, the same essential teacher, and his commemoration is, or should be, always much more than a family affair. It should be, after all, a matter of simple human solidarity in the presence of simple human greatness—a greatness more humble and anonymous and unassuming than the hero’s or the artist’s, but a precious greatness nonetheless: above all in its pure-minded forms. Such pure-minded greatness is extremely rare at any time, but it is less rare, I think, among teachers than, say, soldiers or artists; yet, rare as it is, its recognition is even rarer. It deserves, of course, not only recognition, but reverence and awe—the awe we owe to supreme achievement. We are too much inclined, I think, to honor the noisier and more flamboyant kinds of achievement, and to miss in those quiet and apparently usual lives the tough daily heroism of disciplined courage and achieved generosity. It is one of the revealing stupidities of the age that we suppose generosity comes naturally, a simple grace of the heart and that modesty is the virtue of naturally modest or unassuming men. It is rarely so simple.

Teachers as a group are certainly no less vain and selfish than other men. But of the few truly modest and generous teachers of my acquaintance, there is not one who owes these traits to natural endowment or temperament. In every case, they became what they are through an arduous struggle against real vanity and selfishness, in a conscious and sometimes tragic effort to realize themselves, or a part of themselves, more fully. It is an achievement that I regard with pure awe, whether it is the work of the artist or the saint or the great teacher. But it is no less proper to the teacher than to the artist or saint. Indeed, without it, the teacher can no more teach than the artist and saint can convince or convert.

Here, I think, is a crucial quality of the great teacher. He can educate others only because he has educated himself. That is his sanction. I repeat: it is only by educating ourselves that we can acquire the power to educate others. The struggle with a form, with the hard granite of human nature—dancing in chains, as Nietzsche calls it—teaches self-mastery; the self-mastery so acquired accepts harsher challenges, more austere conventions. But the evident self mastery, either in the man or the artist, confers upon him his title as educator.

And the reason is that there is no sanction greater than this visible mastery, this triumph of hard exemplification, this evidence of having paid in person for becoming what one is. It is the most compelling power in human nature and affairs, and it is something which, in different measure and degree, the saint, the hero, and the artist all share—this common charisma of the great teacher. Charisma is a much-abused word. I mean by it just this power of example; not a nimbus of personality or a halo of style, but radiant exemplification to which the student–like the writer’s audience–contributes a corresponding radiant hunger for becoming. In education, ripeness is all; only those who have realized, or are realizing, themselves, can ever hope to influence others.

Learning matters, of course. But the purpose of learning and knowledge in the humanities is not to become a learned man, a scholar, but by means of it to become a man, or a better man than you once were. The place of the humanities, the literae humaniores, in the curriculum is justified by their actual power to civilize, to humanize, to make men. If they do not do these things, they are merely pretensions; they cease to be educational and become merely decorative. But their essential agent is the teacher who by being the man he is, by exemplifying what he knows, by integrating knowledge and action, knowledge and behavior, declares in his own small person the great humanizing power of his texts. If the teacher fails, the humanities fail with him.
The teacher of Shakespeare who is also, say, a bigot or a hypocrite, invites the student to retort, “What can Shakespeare do for me, since he has obviously done nothing for the man who professes him?” And the student is right; Shakespeare has failed in the professor’s failure. If the student is naive in expecting a Shakespearean breadth and wisdom, then the assumptions of humanities and liberal education are themselves naïve or false.

It is the great or good teacher who alone can reconcile the specialist’s exact and rigorous knowledge with the moral claims of the humanities. He does so by living what he knows, realizing himself through what he studies with love. And this ripeness of a real man, a man in whom speech and action are one, who shows in everything he does that grasp and urgency of understanding that make him remarkable and relevant to those who are less ripe—this ripeness is the only justification of the humanities, apart from antiquarian curiosity. And their whole educational function is to create in the student the apposite aspiration. To the student who asks, “Why should I study Greek or German or whatever?”, the teacher’s most effective answer—provided it is true—is simply “I am” or “what I want to be, but am not yet”. If it is true, the arrogance does not matter. For in this way a dialogue of natural emulation is set up between student and teacher, each educating the other by something like contrapuntal aspiration.

There is, of course, no single style of great teaching, no Platonic idea of the Teacher. Traditions, styles and aspirations differ as much from teacher to teacher as from student to student. The embodiment the teacher attempts may be personal, rational, or contemplative; scientific or hunanistic; meditative or activist. What matters is the integration of significant life and significant knowledge, compassionate study and informed conduct. The combinations are infinite and there is no hierarchy or preferred pattern. If a man is intelligent and conscientious, it can be assured him that he will find his proper relevance and use, his own appropriate and personal field of action. If not, he will be discovered by those who need him and find him relevant to their lives. No teacher tries to be relevant; he is or he isn’t, by virtue of what he is and what he does and how well he does it. “The present,” as Whitehead said, “contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past and it is the future. The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present…The communion of saints is a great and inspiring assemblage, but it has only one possible hall of meeting, and that is the present.” It is the same with teachers as with saints; so long as they are engaged in realizing themselves, in becoming what they are, they are almost entirely in the present. Knowledge itself can be of any time, but to be what one knows—this is only possible in the present. One does not become relevant simply by being there, but one must at least be there to be relevant. Pedantry is, by definition, irrelevant knowledge, knowledge of no conceivable earthly use, mediated by a man of no human use. And any education based upon the presumption that what is professionally interesting to the teacher is relevant to the student is clearly pedantic, an absurdity, a monstrosity.

The first principle of all education and the basis of all good teaching is respect for the human aspirations of your student, his hope of somehow sharing in the greatness of the species, or even in a greatness of his own. What he understands of Plato and Bach is what justifies his aspiration just as it defines his limits. The task of the great teacher is to realize this hope to its limits, to elicit as much of the student’s human skill and imagination and force of mind as he possibly can. And this is most effectively done by assuming that your student is capable and by respecting, with as much personal greatness as you yourself can muster, your student’s share in the highest human hopes. If this respect is missing, if the audience is distrusted, nothing of any educational value can occur. Emerson makes my point. “Our culture,” he writes, “has truckled to the times. It is not manworthy. If the best and spiritual are omitted, so are the practical and moral. It does not make us brave or free. We teach boys to be such men as they are. We do not teach them to aspire to be all they can. We do not give them a training as if we believed in their noble nature…We aim to make accountants, attorneys, engineers, but not to make able, earnest, great-hearted men”

“As if we believed in their noble nature…” It is no longer easy to believe such things; we have been taught to expect the worst and we therefore tend to create it by anticipation. Our techniques for trouble surpass our skills for survival. But that belief, whether as desperate hope or unkickable habit or simpIe naivete, is one without which the great teacher cannot teach. I know of no great teacher who can do without it. It comes, I suppose, originally from his own nature, and is deepened and reinforced by what he reads, the texts whose custodian and interpreter he is. In time it becomes complex and rich with meaning, inflected with irony and darker knowledge. It is refreshed and exhausted and firmed by contact with the young; it is eroded an ingrained by being live and acted upon. But it is always significantly there. Seconded by intelligence, imagination, wit and style, it is indistinguishable in its upper reaches from the highest nobilities of talent. Like them, it is itself nobility, the belief itself finally transformed into the thing believed in.

Let me close by reading you the most perfect account of education I know. It is a brief passage of Nietzsche in which, it seems to me, everything of essential importance about the significance of the teacher is said, and said with stunning accuracy and power. The key idea is love: love for people, ideas, works of art, activities, anything. Love is our guide to what we need intellectually and morally, and that love is always a collaborative and liberating effort, linking learner and teacher, student and text, reaaer and poem, in a complementary process of crucial importance. “How,” Nietzsche asks, “can a mind find out who he is? How will he know that what he finds is the real thing and not another husk of false or deceptive identity?” And he answers, “Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask: what up to now have you truly loved, what has raised up your soul, what ruled it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence, these teachers, before you, and perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield to you a law, a basic law of your true self. Compare these objects, see how one teacher completes, enlarges, exceeds, transfigures the other, how they form a ladder on which you have so far climbed up toward yourself. For your true being does not lie hidden deep within you but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you customarily accept as your own self. Your true teachers, the men who formed you and educated you, reveal to you what is the true original sense and basic stuff of your being, something absolutely ineducable and unformable, but certainly something difficult of access, fettered, paralyzed: your teachers can only be your liberators. And that is the secret of all education and culture: it does not give artificial limbs, wax noses, or spectacles for the eyes—that which can give those gifts is merely a caricature of education. Education on the contrary is liberation.”

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