When I passed my flight test to become a Certified Flight Instructor, the FAA examiner turned to me and said, “OK, John, you are all set to go. Now your first 10 students will teach you how to fly.” The same has been true in my university career. It is a cliche that teachers learn as much or more than their students, but there is more than a modicum of truth in this. A provocative question or a lively discussion can inspire ideas in me that I had never known before, and in many classes I heard myself saying things that I found surprising. I have often thought, “Where in the world did those words come from?” Sometimes I even found myself rushing back to my office after a class to take notes on what I or my students had just said before I lost the ideas. I have already written about the daily gradual illumination that teaching offers in this blog’s essay on Teaching as Improvisation. In this essay, I would like to share a few thunderclaps that changed how I taught, how I thought, and how I was in the world. Interestingly, the experiences I am about to relate left me with stimulating questions rather than answers, and these questions have remained with me as vital catalysts during my subsequent 45 years of university teaching. It is my hope that you might find these experiences and insights transferable from the classroom to the everyday living of life.
What and Why am I Teaching?
I began teaching at St. Michael’s College in Vermont in 1967. My early attitude toward teaching embodied what Paolo Freire calls the banking method: I had knowledge the student didn’t have; I deposited it into the student’s mind; the student regurgitated it on a test, and I rewarded him or her with a grade. One of my earliest and brightest students said one day that I was not teaching them Philosophy. I was teaching them how to play the game called student. I felt a jolt of recognition and an almost desperate longing not to be that kind of a teacher. My external behavior might not have immediately changed, but my internal landscape was shaken. I began seriously to ask myself what I thought I was doing when I entered a classroom. What was my intention? What would make the next 90 minutes valuable for my students and for myself? I continue to ask these questions today, as they nurture an ever-deepening awareness of the meaning of teaching.
What do I Think I Know?
My formal training had been in Greek and Medieval Philosophy, and my first teaching covered the years from 400-1400 CE: St. Augustine to William of Ockham. For a good five years I taught the words of these great thinkers with confident authority. One day, however, I was teaching St. Augustine’s explanations concerning predestination. Essentially, I understood him to say that God knows the future because His reality is eternal Presence, but that does not determine the future. After listening for a while, a student said, “I don’t get it.” I was shaken by my next thought: “Neither do I.” I had been mouthing these words for years, and I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was talking about. It sounded like nonsense to me, and I realized that I had been teaching students and grading them on ideas of which I had little grasp. Moreover, I also realized in that moment that I really didn’t care about these ideas. That traditional Western God had become more and more abstract, dry, and remote. He was way too masculine and intellectual. My soul longed for a gentler, kinder experience of Divinity.
I therefore began to ask myself why I was teaching what I was teaching. Why should I teach ideas that made no sense and held little meaning for me? Why should I require students to read books that had no fire for me? Why should I require students to memorize answers to questions that neither they nor I had asked?
These questions have informed my teaching for over four decades. My interests shifted away from the medieval period and back to Plato and the Greeks, forward to Existentialism, and to the Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Zen. (In fairness, there are fine thinkers, such as Matthew Fox, who write about St. Thomas Aquinas with sensitivity and intelligence. My point is simply that I personally find more “juice” in other ways of thought.) At any rate, I think it was in that class that I began the slow process of becoming a lover of wisdom.
After a few years of teaching, however, I was honored with a grant from the Carnegie foundation. I was to have one of my classes video-taped, and then bring it to Boston for a week’s seminar with 10 other honored teachers from around the country. Throughout the week, I saw many examples of magnificent teaching. On Friday morning, it was my turn. I had chosen a lecture on Sartre’s play “The Flies,” one of my favorite platforms for waxing eloquent. But 30 seconds into my video, I could have died. I wanted to crawl under the table. There I was for all to see: “Mr. Hotshot Professor. Mr. Ego.” I can’t express the pain of that moment, as I saw myself so clearly self-involved as a flashy performer, but a truly lousy teacher. The experience was so painful for everyone that the leaders of the seminar mercifully turned it off after just a few minutes. Everyone was most kind, but equally clear that I had some changing to do.
That was the last straw. From that very day, as I crossed the threshold of my classrooms, I reminded myself in a nearly audible whisper, “It’s not about me. If Love is missing, this will be a waste of time.” I’m pretty sure that things started getting better.