Tag Archives: Education



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.

Lightning Strikes
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.

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.”

[Children’s education] should not be in the form of compulsory instruction, because for the free man there should be no element of slavery in learning. Enforced exercise does no harm to the body, but enforced learning will not stay in the mind.
Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 536