Category Archives: Teaching


About half a century ago, one of my philosophy professors launched himself into a riff about how the life of a philosopher was irrelevant to the quality of his thought. Logical consistency, he said, was the ultimate criterion of philosophical worth. Even at the time, my young mind sensed that this could not be true. Over the years I have become even more convinced that if philosophical study does not result in a wiser, more loving and pleasant life, then it is a complete waste of time. I would sometimes joke with my students that I could not possibly give them an honest grade until they had lived for 50 years. Then I would need an email telling me how their lives had turned out. At that point, of course, they could grade themselves. It is immensely gratifying for me to see so many of my former students on this blog and on Facebook who are living creative, fulfilling and loving lives. The only small credit I can take is having had the privilege of introducing them to some wonderful friends, from Plato to Pirsig. The rest has been up to them.

It seemed to me that reading these inspiring thinkers made teaching a breeze; a joyful breeze, but a breeze nonetheless. Imagine working with the ideas of a thinker like Plato whose writings have lasted for over 2000 years. His thoughts easily inspired compelling words, but it seemed to me that those words would have been empty truisms unless they somehow had impacted my life. This is one reason I loved flying airplanes and playing music: all the fine talk came to an end when you lifted off a runway or played the first chord of a song. But how does one demonstrate philosophical sensitivity? Surely I couldn’t have my students follow me around all day. Nor did I have the courage to show them my lesser angels.

teacher 1983

It gradually dawned on me, however, that my attitudes and values showed up every day in the classroom. Did I listen carefully, and with respect? Did I value honesty over looking good? Did I have sincere love for the process of learning and for the unfolding souls of my students? Was I able to use my human frailty as a model for self-reflection and growth? I came to believe that these values were the essence of teaching, and that the spoken words were simply excuses that allowed us to come together in a field at once sacred and loving. I would begin every semester with this quote from Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.“

Aristotle once observed that the poet and the philosopher were alike in that they both began in wonder. It seems to me that true poetry and true philosophy do not talk about the world. Rather, much like the Aboriginal Dreamtime, a teacher and her students together sing the world into being. I do not mean an objective world, nor even a right world, but the very best world they can co-create on any given day. It is a world that springs from wonder and sincerity and playful intelligence. It is a verbal portrait which, when freshly and beautifully rendered, has the power to transform a life. And that, it seems to me, is never a waste of time.



I was a Certified Flight Instructor for 10 years at the Burlington, Vermont international airport. I couldn’t get enough of flying. Actually, this was during a difficult time in my life, and getting up in the air helped me to keep my feet on the ground. After a couple of years of giving primary instruction, I was finally qualified to teach instrument flying. This is an entirely different ball game. Flying in the clouds without autopilot is quite tricky, and in order to understand one of the lessons I learned about teaching, I have to tell you a little about staying alive in the air. When you are in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) it is easy to become disoriented and to even lose track of whether the plane is up or down. It requires intense concentration just to stay in the air. When the pilot gets to the destination airport, however, the fun really begins. Back in the 80’s there were three basic types of instrument approaches to a runway. The most accurate approach, still used today, is called the ILS, the instrument landing system. As the pilot approaches the airport, air traffic control vectors her to intercept a radio beacon emanating from the runway. While keeping the plane level, controlling airspeed, and talking to ATC, the pilot has to carefully watch a needle on one of the dials on the panel. As it swings from the stop to the center, the pilot has to play the wind and perfectly time the rate of turn to a heading published on her approach chart. This lines her up with the runway. Then as the plane gets closer to the airport, another needle moves from top to bottom. When it is centered, it monitors the rate of descent. Now the pilot has to keep both needles centered, control the heading, the airspeed, and the rate of descent. If all goes well, the clouds open at say, 500 feet, and there is the runway! It is really an incredible feeling. (Don’t worry about all this on your next commercial flight. The pilots are very well trained, and besides, in the modern world the autopilot does most of the work.)

Now to the lesson. One day an older student came to see me. He told me that he had been working on his instrument rating for over 6 months, and gone through 5 instructors and many thousands of dollars. He just couldn’t get it. Would I please give him a try? I felt so sorry for the guy. He was a physician, and the head of Neurology at a local med school. He was clearly in the top 1% of smarts. So I told him I would give him one month of lessons, and if he hadn’t qualified by that time, we would call it quits. He agreed.

Before our first lesson, I gave this situation a lot of thought. I knew that flight instructors in general, and instrument instructors in particular, could get understandably jittery. If the student is flying in the clouds toward a mountain range, all the while waiting for the ILS needle to move, and he misses it for even a fraction of a second, many instructors begin tapping the dial and yelling ILS ILS. This has many deleterious effects. It makes the student feel like a failure, and the anxiety of the instructor is contagious. Further, it doesn’t give the student a chance to catch himself, and correct a mistake on his own. It seemed obvious to me he could never learn in that atmosphere. I must admit, however, that sitting in a cloud heading toward the mountains, and waiting, waiting, for the student to react to the needle takes a certain amount of starch.

There were no clouds on the day of our first lesson, so I put the Doctor under a hood that restricted his vision to the instrument panel. He had already done the approach into the Plattsburgh, NY airport over 50 times, so I figured he knew the numbers he needed and he had his charts on his lap. As we flew across Lake Champlain to Plattsburgh, I didn’t say a word. I would catch him peeking once in a while to see what I was up to, and I would quickly look out my window, ostensibly enjoying the view of the lake. We received our vector to intercept the ILS and still I waited. The needle started moving and although he didn’t see it right away, I kept quiet. (It of course helped that I could see the mountains that day). As I hoped, he caught the movement at the last possible moment, and managed to line up with the runway. His maneuver was far from graceful, but I figured it was really the first time he had ever done an approach on his own. It was a raggedy day, but we survived. At one point, he asked “how am I doing?” and I told him to just keep flying the route and we would talk about it back at the airport. Once on the ground, I pointed out five or six things he might have done to make the flight smoother, but I could already see a change. By God, he had done it!

We flew every day for two weeks, and while we were in the air, I hardly said a word. Back in the office we would critique the flight together. My suggestions made sense to him since we were talking about actual situations we had just experienced. It was clear that he already knew what to do; someone just had to let him do it! It was a marvelous thrill to watch this fine man grow in confidence and expertise by the hour. At the end of the two weeks, the Doctor qualified with the FAA for his instrument rating, cutting our agreed upon time in half. After his flight test, he showed up at my office with a big grin and a bottle of Jameson.

The lesson I learned is now obvious, I think. If a student is truly to learn flying, or philosophy, or music, she must at some point claim the learning as her own. The teacher is not the star of the show, nor ultimately is the teacher responsible for the student’s learning. Rather, he needs to walk the razor’s edge between modelling his love of learning, caring for his subject and for his students, and then getting out of the way. A jumpy flight instructor, a piano teacher cracking your knuckles with a ruler, or a university professor tyrannizing his students with grades are all examples of lousy teaching. “The true teacher,” says Lao Tsu, “teaches without words. She views the parts with compassion, because she understands the whole. Her constant practice is humility. She doesn’t glitter like a jewel but lets herself be shaped by the Tao, as rugged and common as a stone.”

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.”

On Cheating: A Dialogue

At 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, my office window was already darkened. The deserted building was quiet as I slowly made my way through a stack of term papers. “Two more, “I thought, “and I’m outta here.” I could picture my wife lighting the fire, and whipping up one of her delicious dinners.
As I reached for the next paper, a student suddenly appeared at my door. Sandy hair topped a floor length tweed coat. Clear blue eyes looked out of a sea of freckles. His face was alive.
“Hi, prof,” he said. “You busy?”
“Yup,” I said.
“Can I just have a few minutes?” he asked. “Something’s been going round and round in my head,and I need to talk.”
“OK,” I sighed, thinking of a fire burned to ashes, and dinner cooling on the table. I nodded to a chair. “Have a seat.”
“My Name’s Matt,”he said, settling into the chair.
“Hi Matt,” I said. “What’s up?”
“It’s like this,” he said. “It’s getting toward the end of the semester, ya know? And a lot of teachers are beginning to fulminate…”
“Fulminate?” I asked.
“Yah,”he said. “Look it up. Anyway, lots of teachers are taking class time to come down hard against cheating and plagiarism. They get like all bent our of shape and get all heavy about how kids who cheat are bad.”
“So what did you expect?” I asked. “Encouragement?”
“Naw,” he said. “But I really think that cheating is damned understandable, what with the pressure and all. And frankly, prof, I don’t think the reasons I’ve heard for not cheating are worth a crock.”
“Of what?” I asked.
“Not funny, prof,” he said.
“OK,” I said. “Tell me what you mean.”
“Well,” he said, “I remember the grade school teachers telling me that if I cheated on a test, I was only cheating myself.”
“And…?” I asked.
“C’mon,” he said, a pained look on his face. “I may be stupid but I’m not dumb. I’m going to learn what I need to know, or care to know, and the rest is just games. I want to be an accountant, for God’s sakes, and make a lot of money doing other people’s income taxes. So why study Wordsworth? So I can recite poetry to my clients? I’m sorry. I’ll gladly learn what I need to learn in life, but if I can cheat my way around some stupid hoops, why not?”
“But don’t you think,” I asked, “that a human life is richer if it has some poetry or mythology in it?”
“Sure,” he said. “But I got a lifetime to fool with that stuff. Talk real. Right now, my priorities don’t lie with the Romantic poets. It’s marks, deadlines, and hormones. Not necessarily in that order.”
“I see your point,” I said.
“Besides,” he went on. “Wasn’t Plato against compulsory education? Him being the father of the whole thing and all? Didn’t he say “for the free spirit, there should be no element of slavery in learning?'”
I shifted uncomfortably. “You do seem to remember some things quite well,” I said. “But being here in college is your choice.”
“Smell the coffee,” he said. “You can’t deny that a lot of us students are in school because of pressure from our parents and because of economic pressure from the society. Some choice: college on the one hand, poverty and PO’d parents on the other.”
“Honest, prof,” he continued, “this whole school business has been thirteen years of sheer torture. Over half the teachers I’ve had seemed to hate what they were doing, and they didn’t like kids very much either. My history teacher made history boring and my poetry teacher was the soccer coach. On and on. If their subjects didn’t mean much to them, didn’t inspire them, why should they count a tinker’s damn with me?”
“Well…” I said.
“School has been one long painful game,” he continued. “Nothing but memorizing the answers to other people’s questions. Any honest question I had was on the floor just long enough for the teacher to stomp it, like a roach. I learned real fast what was important, and it wasn’t me learning the wisdom of the ages. No–the only thing I’ve really learned is how to play the game called ‘student.’ And the point of that game is to get the highest mark for the least amount of work. And one of the basic rules is: when you don’t need the knowledge, and its a lousy course anyway, and you can get away with it, Cheat!’

He sat back, finally played out. I looked at him across the silence in my office. This was a good kid, with good, sincere ideas. He was clearly confused by the contradictory values that seemed embedded in the institutions of education. I wondered if I could return the honesty he had given me.
“Matt,” I said, “I’m not going to argue with a word you said. When I was a Freshman, I felt trapped in an uncaring and impersonal system just like you do.”
“But here you are,” he said, “part of the system. What gives?”
“That’s one of my perennial questions,” I said. “And maybe in the next few minutes we’ll confront it together. But for now, I’d like to follow a line of thought about a problem with cheating, even in an imperfect system.”
“Good luck,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “My idea’s got something to do with how I feel when there is discontinuity between what’s going on inside of me and the face I show to the world. There’s a thinker I like named Martin Buber. He talks about how some people in the world are ‘essence people’ and others are ‘image people.’ Now it seems to me that when there is a serious break between who I am and the image I fabricate to show the world, the real me is painfully isolated, unknown and unacknowledged by others and even by myself. I find myself pouring my energy into maintaining that phony exterior, all the while trying to fool myself and other people into believing that the image is real. Moreover, that leaves a terrible emptiness inside. I become what T.S. Eliot called a Hollow Man.
He was listening intently, so I pressed on.
“You know,” I said, “sometime I think our only real possession is our word. It is one of the most important ways that we tell people who we are. You know as well as I do how shabby we feel when we use our word to deceive other people. It’s a betrayal of their trust. It’s a betrayal of our own authentic reality. I think of this sometimes when I sit at a graduation ceremony and watch student after student receive their diplomas. As they walk across the stage, faces flushed with champagne and triumph, mothers and fathers crying with pride, I wonder how terrible some of them must feel, knowing it is all a lie and that they themselves are walking frauds.”
“I see what you’re saying,” He said. “But the pressure…”
“I know,” I said. “But where do we draw the line? Where is the point at which we cave in to fear or greed? It reminds me of the student who asked a teacher if he could have an “A” for a million dollars. After reflection the teacher said sure. The next day, the student asked the teacher for an “A” for ten bucks. ‘What kind of a man do you think I am?’ asked the teacher indignantly. ‘We’ve already established that,’ said the student. ‘Now we are just haggling price.'”
“There is something to this story,” I went on. “Aren’t people who choose to cheat simply prostituting themselves? Selling themselves out because the price it right?”
“That’s nasty, prof,”he said.
“You’re right,” I said. “That usually happens to me when I begin to confront myself.”
“Now don’t you get phony on me,” he said. “You’re not telling me that you have trouble with cheating, are you?”
“You bet I do,” I said. “Not on tests, because that is not an issue for me. But I’m constantly tempted to cheat other people by not giving them my truest thoughts, my honest feelings, and my most generous actions. Maintaining your integrity is one of the toughest things in life. Some people do it by becoming hard, cold, and self-rightous. Others just give up. Still others are looking for a different way, a way fraught with difficulty and risk. There is a saying that we should always be kind, for everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle. One of the hardest is the struggle to be true to yourself. Nobody likes a phony, Matt, especially when it’s yourself. As Pogo said “We have met the enemy, and he is us.'”
“Jeez…” he said.
“You did a good job justifying the act of cheating within an imperfect system, Matt,” I said. “But it’s a lot harder to come up with reasons that justify, or even recommend, being the kind of person who could do it.”
“I never thought of it that way,” he said.
“Actually,” I replied, “this kind of moral thinking is called ‘aretaic’ or the ethics of character, and it goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks.” I grinned at him. “Look it up,” I said.
“Still not funny, prof,” he said.

“Now about my being a part of this ‘corrupt’ system,” I said.
“This is really the point,” he said. “How can a guy buy into those grand ideals of yours when his spirit is being ground down day after day?”
“This is true,” I said. “I’ve already told you that I was as brain dead as anyone when I got out of high school.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“Well, it didn’t happen all at once,” I said. “I just remember that during my Sophomore and Junior years in college, I began to hear refreshing notes in some of my classes. Where was the customary BS? I starting looking at my teachers, perhaps really seeing them for the first time. And I saw, in some of them at least, an honesty and sincerity I never knew existed. What’s more, the process in which they were engaged looked exciting. Fun, even. Finally, I decided to join them.”
“Are you telling me that’s here at this school?” he asked.
“It sure is,” I said. “Right down the hall there is a Religious Studies teacher who is honestly engaging with the problem of evil in the world. When he was in grad school, he worked part-time in a hospital. One of his jobs was delivering dead babies to the morgue. You can join with him, if you want, in his struggle to understand. A few doors farther down is a woman who teaches college writing and who lives as a writer of relentless sincerity. Across the hall from her is a man who loves Shakespeare with passionate intensity.
“I could go on and on, ” I continued. “Schools across the world are filled with teachers who delight in sharing the joys and the skills of learning. Their classrooms are vibrant and energized with caring. But if you want to see them, you have to decide to look. Once you do, once you allow yourself to get a taste of a few of these people, school becomes one of the most alive and exciting places in the world. It also reveals itself as a place where cheating is an obscene and callous affirmation of all the ugly values you deplored when you first came in.”

It was my turn to be played out. Silence settled between us.
“I don’t know what I think about all this,” he said at last, “But there sure is a lot here for me to chew on.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Well, I got to go, prof,” he said. “Thanks for your time.”
“See you, Matt,” I said. “I hope we can do it again.”

I sat in my office alone after he had gone, staring at the darkened window. Finally I turned out the light and went home.


Have you ever wondered why professors in so many disciplines of the arts and sciences are called Doctors of Philosophy?  What does this have to do with chemistry, or even history?  Is the title simply an anachronistic throwback to the Middle Ages?  Or is there a richer meaning here?

It is well known that the word Philosophy comes from two Greek words that combine into φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means “love of wisdom.”  Diogenes Laertius tells us that the word was coined by Pythagoras (582-500 BCE) who said that only the gods were wise.  He was rather a lover of wisdom.

The contemporary usage of “Doctor” of course primarily refers to physicians.  Ph.D.’s sometime use the term in academic settings, but truth to tell I think most feel a bit fraudulent when they do so.    (In Japan, the term “sensei” applies across the board to most professionals: dentists, physicians, and teachers from kindergarten to university–as well as to Zen masters like Mr. Miyagi).

Etymologically, however, Doctor comes from the Latin word “docere” to teach, and thus originally doctor meant “teacher.”

So to be a Doctor of Philosophy is to be a Teacher of the Love of Wisdom.  Thus philosophy is more a love, a system of values, than a body of knowledge.  It is this love, according to Plato, that should animate the Academy and invigorate every discipline throughout the arts and sciences. It sets us on the road that leads beyond the confines of our illusions as he illustrates in his famous allegory of the cave.

But how many university professors are wise–or even seem to care about wisdom?  Robert Pirsig once suggested that many teachers are so smug and self-satisfied that wisdom is a threat to their ego-bound security.

One cannot teach love with words.  The love of wisdom can only be taught by loving it.  The teacher must BE what she teaches.  Sure, the facts and the information have an important place, but if they are not shared within the context of love, they are like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, as St. Paul says.  As a teacher, I need to know my subject, but I believe that what ultimately stays with my students is the respect with which I listen to them, the attention with which I regard them, and the love I have for them and for the wonders and surprises of the subject I teach.  Ten years after the class is over, if they remember me at all, it will be for my love rather than for my knowledge.

So to be a Ph.D. is a humbling and challenging mantle.  It is also a beckoning aspiration for which I am eternally grateful.