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What’s a PH.D.?

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 sometimes use this title, but most prefer Professor. (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. Philosophy is therefore more a love, a system of values, than a body of knowledge. It is enlivened by wonder and entranced by mystery. It is, as Jacob Needleman says, a longing for awakening.  This love, according to Plato, should animate the Academy and invigorate every discipline throughout the arts and sciences.

I wonder how many university professors are wise–or even seem to care about wisdom? How many professors, how many people, recognize their own lack of self-knowledge and general ignorance of “what is truly good and beautiful?” Robert Pirsig laments the university professor who unwittingly kills the creative spirit of his students, which is something none of us wants to do.  It is so easy, however, given the pressures of modern education, to be caught in the vortex of a downward spiral.  Our youthful ideals can atrophy as we approach the shoals of burn-out.

I was blessed to be drawn to Philosophy.  The readings in my courses inspired me and most of my students as we encountered provocative questions, and were swept up in “the eternal conversation of things that truly matter.”

Clearly, the facts, the information and the skills necessary for one’s subject are important, even lovely, things. They have served to spark the interest and quicken the heart of every engaged teacher. But if they are not shared within the context of love, they are like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, as St. Paul says.

One cannot teach love with words. The love of wisdom can only be taught by loving it–and living that love in and out of the classroom. The teacher must BE what she teaches.  She can only teach peace with a peaceful heart; he can only teach love with care and vulnerability.  What ultimately stays with our students, I believe, is the respect with which we listen to them, the attention with which we regard them, and our abiding faith in the power of our subject to enlarge the soul and thus to expand one’s world.

A Ph.D., therefore, worthy of the name, does not identify an “expert.”  It identifies a dedicated, passionate and skillful learner.   In every class she gives life to these words of e.e.cummings

I would rather learn from one bird how to sing

Than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

A Prisoner’s Honest Question


In 1996, I found myself teaching honors sections on Plato’s dialogues at  Indiana State University.  After a couple of weeks, I received a call from an administrator asking if I would be willing to teach outreach courses at the State Penitentiary in Carlisle, Indiana. “Why not?” I thought.  “It should be an interesting experience.” Little did I know.

I showed up on the appointed day and made my way through razor wire fences and electronic gates. I was then photographed and fingerprinted, and led by a guard down a long corridor of the Maximum Security Section, where the inmates were serving 20 years to life. We stopped at a door, and he said, “This is your classroom.” “Aren’t you coming in?” I asked. “Nope,” he said, “you’re on your own.”  I entered the classroom with shaking knees.

There were 26 very big men in the room, mostly African Americans, and they sent waves of distrust and hostility in my direction. Most sat sideways so they didn’t have to look at me. With great trepidation, my voice 2 octaves higher than usual, I began to talk about Philosophy using the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. After five minutes or so, a hand went up. “Wonderful,” I thought, “class participation so soon!”

“Listen, man,“ the student said catching my eye. “Are you just here to give us some more White Man’s Bullshit?”

He stopped me in my tracks. I had never had a question more relevant, more clear and direct, and more to the point. The elephant in the room was loudly trumpeting. I had only two choices: run and hide in the protective mantle of the Teacher, or do my best to match his authenticity. “OK,” I said, “I guess you noticed that I’m White.” A few chuckles. “And to be honest, I have my share of bullshit, but I don’t want to lay it on you. So if you catch me being insincere or dishonest, I give you absolute permission to call me on it. Will you do that?”  “OK,” he said.  “One more thing,” I said. “If I catch you giving me any Black Man’s Bullshit, I’ll call you on it. Do we have a deal?”

With the ensuing laughter, the ice began to melt, and the atmosphere in that room went from cold to warm to scintillating as these bright and spirited men found room to grow. They actually came to understand that Plato was talking about the idea that we were all “doing time” inside our own heads, and that he, like the Buddha, was suggesting ways to ease our pain. Most of these men were Black Muslims, and it was clear to me that they took their new beliefs seriously.  We therefore read some poems of Rumi and Hafiz, and sections from Al-Kindi’s Treatise “On the Art of Banishing Sorrow.” The book, however, that most impressed them was the Tao Te Ching. Some days when I arrived at the classroom, the entire class was already heatedly involved in a focused discussion of Chinese Philosophy.  One day a guy said, “This Lao Tzu is one cold blooded dude!” I think the Chinese Sage would have smiled.

It is ironic, I think, that the most honest question I was ever asked as a teacher came to me in a maximum security prison. That one adamantine question broke the prejudicial chains that imprisoned us in separate worlds, and transformed us into a group of men simply trying to help each other figure things out.  It seemed to me that the man who asked the original question was exhibiting tremendous respect for himself, for me, and for the process of learning. He shone a bright light on the darkness in the room, and gave us all a chance to step into that light.

On the final day of the semester, every man stood in a line by the door, many with tears in their eyes, as they waited for a hug before returning to their cells.  That marvelous question broke all of our hearts–and broke them open.



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.

Teaching on the Edge

(This is a highly abbreviated edition of a previously published page)

Once you start looking, the heartfelt criticisms of modern education are stunning. In a delightful letter written to Paul Strand from Texas in 1917, Georgia O’Keeffe told of an exhilarating risk she took in her search for authentic education: “I’ve talked in Faculty Meeting,” she wrote, “a rearing, snorting time – it was amazing to me – I just knocked everybody’s head against the wall and made hash – and told them what I thought of school teachers and their darned courses of study and raised a time generally — it was an event … I talked for conservation of thought- in the child and the student- education for the livingness of life rather than to get a certificate- That teachers are not living – they are primarily teachers … Art never seemed so worthwhile to me before” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1987, P. 166).

Another powerful example can be found in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
There was nothing in his style to indicate that Aristotle was ever one to doubt Aristotle. Phaedrus saw Aristotle as tremendously satisfied with this neat little stunt of naming and classifying everything. [He was] the prototype for the many millions of self-satisfied and truly ignorant teachers throughout history who have smugly and callously killed the creative spirits of their students with this dumb ritual of analysis, this blind rote, eternal naming of things. Walk into any of a hundred thousand classrooms today and hear the teachers divide and subdivide and interrelate and establish ‘principles’ and study ‘methods’ and what you will hear is the ghost of Aristotle speaking down through the centuries – the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason (1974, p. 360).

It is tempting to dismiss these acerbic utterances as the hyperbolic fulminations of disillusioned curmudgeons. I have been struck, however, by the sincere agreement expressed by many of my students as they read these and similar texts. Far too many of my students have voiced not only dissatisfaction with, but downright hatred, of the whole enterprise of school. Many will leave college with a profound sense of relief, and will never turn to poetry, or philosophy, or history again. Further, the strength and certainty of their experience, the severity of their judgments, simply replicate my own often boring and confusing experience as a student. And so I wonder: am I, as Pirsig charges, in danger of killing the creative spirit of my students?

When I was a young teacher, I thought of myself as a teacher of texts. I had been trained in the canon of western philosophy. My job, I believed, was to transmit the wisdom of the ages; to expose a text as clearly as I could and then to dispel any difficulties my students might have. “Any questions?” I would ask, assuming an expectant John Wayne-like stance at the front of the class. Finally, a willing student would throw a plate-of-a-question into the air for me, and I would whip out my six-gun-of-an-answer and blast it into oblivion.

At the end of one class, the floor littered as usual with the debris of dead questions, I returned to my office to find a note on my desk. A colleague must have been listening to part of my lecture. His advice took the form of a quote from Malreaux that said, in effect, that one good question was worth a thousand answers. I was both touched that he had cared enough to give me some advice, and miffed to think that in his opinion I needed it. But more importantly, I had not the slightest idea what his message meant. Questions, I thought, were to be answered, and that is exactly what I was doing. What possible good, for heaven’s sake, was an unanswered question?

It did not occur to me at the time that I was forcing my students to memorize the answers to other people’s questions, questions that had never truly lived in their minds- or in mine, for that matter. Yet my dependence upon the answers found in books turned out to be a model of education that has been recognized as destructive since the very beginning.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates quotes Thamus approvingly: [writing] is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality (1920, [275A], I, p. 278)

Having the show of wisdom without the reality is the classic description of foolishness that Socrates gave at his trial that is recorded in Plato’s Apology. After questioning the wisdom of a famous politician, Socrates says: “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, -for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know” (1920, [21D], I, p. 405). Now how can a person not know something, yet labor under the fiction that he does? It seems to me that it is precisely having a head filled with vaguely understood answers that can lull a person into the false security of the fool. Thus, book learning can easily become a veil that shields a person from recognizing his own ignorance, and it is precisely this lack of recognition that is the mark of the fool. No, Plato has Phaedrus say, we must search “for the living word of knowledge which has a soul and of which the written word is no more than an image” (1920, [276A], I, p. 279).

And yet…the Beauty of Reading
Surely texts themselves, and the use of texts by the teacher, are not the core of the problem. The majesty and wisdom of great literature is simply too powerful to be dismissed. It seems obvious that books are the scholar’s basic tool, and that the mastery and love of texts are the mark of the vital teacher. Ralph Waldo Emerson was eloquent on this point: “It is remarkable,” he wrote, “the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 30).

Georgia O’Keeffe, too, was an avid reader: “I had been reading the Divine Comedy – Longfellow translation,” she wrote her friend Anita, “and the tearing storm seemed to be just a part of it all – I was so interested I read almost all night … it reads even better the second time” (Robinson, 1989, p.165). Her biographer Roxanna Robinson continues: “Georgia was reading seriously this year [1916]: Ibsen, Dante, and Nietzsche.” All of her reading raised “questions of sexual equality…. and all granted philosophical permission to develop a personal code of values” (1989, p. 165). O’Keeffe was also deeply influenced by Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ and most especially by Goethe’s Faust. Concerning the latter she wrote: “Anita it’s simply great … I almost lost my mind the day I started it” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1989, p. 16).

Here we find a crucial and fundamental difference between the quality of O’Keeffe’s reading and mine as a young teacher. I viewed books as entities in themselves, as things that contained the Truth. Engaging, surely, filled with fascinating insights and difficult ideas, but not really addressing questions which were matters of life and death to me. As long as I was simply a teacher of texts I can honestly say that I was never in danger of “almost losing my mind” over a book. “Losing one’s mind,” however, might be what education is all about: to explode the boundaries of our conditioned minds, and to open them to greater vistas. Thus the teacher who wishes to nurture learning in her students will use writings that Emerson calls “Blood-warm” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 44). She will choose books that have brought her more deeply into the conflagration of human experience -her own experience- messy, uncertain, and paradoxical. She will choose books that have exploded the boundaries of her own world, propelling her outward toward richer patterns of being.

The Power of Questions
The philosopher Jacob Needleman says: “Whether we are speaking about the education of young people, or the education of what is young and searching in ourselves, it is first of all necessary to support the love of wisdom, the sensitivity to universal ideas that throw the whole of our common life into question. To think in new categories; to envision life within a vast, new frame of reference; and through that, to awaken and orient that impulse in human nature which is deeper and higher than ego — this is the first task of real philosophy” (1986, p. 177). Real questions have the power to expand the horizons of the world. They are “those that we have all but given up hope of ever seeing asked or answered, questions that somewhere deep within us, in the child within us, we long to think about, dream about” (1986, p.8). These questions, Needleman continues, are different from the problems of philosophy: the problem of the existence of god, the problem of universals, and the like. He says: These are not the questions of philosophy; they are only the fossilized remains of what were once living and breathing “creatures.” Official philosophy, a sort of paleontology of the mind, lays out these bones and fragments and reconstructs gigantic skeletons called “philosophical arguments,” which are housed in museums called philosophy departments and philosophy texts. But reconstruction is not remembering. The “problems of philosophy” are only the tracks left by the questions of philosophy — something that has long since moved on, and is still moving on within every serious human being (1986, p. 8).

Needleman distinguishes here between problems and questions. Problems need to be solved. Questions, on the other hand, transform our experience of life and of ourselves. Their answers are not spoken or written. They can only be lived. Rainer Maria Rilke puts this well in his Letter to a Young Poet: …1 beg you …to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer (1975, p.25).

The true Socratic question, then, teeters on the brink of mystery. Questions such as this do not seek to add to the known. They push us, rather, to the edge of the unknown, and keep on pushing — until we fall in. These questions ignite the flame of wonder. A mind inflamed with wonder and a heart inflamed by longing are simply the natural human responses to a world that is cracked open by an adamantine question; a world which is itself revealed to be dynamic, like a living flame. The pronouncement of Heraclitus that “this universe …has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is , and will be — an ever-living fire … ” (1960, fro 29, p. 71), is rendered in the modern idiom by Annie Dillard: “The whole show has been on fire from the word go,” she says. “I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames” ( 1990, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, P. 9) Perhaps it was this type of creative looking into the unknown that Plato had in mind when he spoke of ‘the living word of knowledge which has a soul.’

I believe the most fundamental quality that allows one to wear the mantle of “teacher” is that she is a passionate, joyful, and skillful learner. First, she has the desire and the ability to nurture the love of wisdom in herself and in her students; second, she cultivates an ongoing engagement with what is given in texts and in experience; and third, she musters the willingness to risk the contemplative interplay between the given and the mysterious, the known and the unknown, within which the creative activity of vital teaching can unfold. Her desire is to be a mid-wife in the process of creating a newer and hopefully more comprehensive vision of human possibilities, freshly understood and beautifully rendered. The vital teacher is dancing on the razor’s edge of provisional knowledge, moving in a liminal reality between what he thinks he knows and the unexpected and surprising perspectives that emerge in a wonder-filled classroom. Robert Pirsig’s challenge touches the heart of every dedicated teacher: killing the creative spirits of our students is the last thing we want to do. And so I find myself journeying along the continuum that lies between Pirsig’s warning and this magnificent aspiration set forth in a couplet by e. e. cummings:

I would rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance (1959, p. 66).

The Dappled Road Toward Wisdom

The inspiring thoughts of theoretical philosophy strike me as wonderfully bright, hopeful, and inspiring, but the journey toward maturity and wisdom also has a darker side. In order to understand this reality, I think we need to look squarely at the shadowy depths from which Wisdom emerges. “Bonno wa satori” says a Japanese Zen aphorism: enlightenment abides in our imperfections. Talk of the magnificence of Wisdom seems disingenuous when we look through the window of the lecture hall at the world outside, filled with real—and suffering–humanity. “Today, like every day,” says Rumi, “we wake up empty and frightened.”

From one perspective, I feel as though I have been living life in a series of interior rooms. I (my ego) began as a pinched little room. Now my interior room feels more ample, and its walls are often translucent and permeable, allowing the breath of life, sometimes at least, to have its say through me. After innumerable transitions–some harsh, some gentle—my inner and outer worlds are coming into alignment, opening onto vistas of a sacred world. How I got from there to here is the story I want to share.

Looking back over seven decades of life, I say gratefully that it has been quite a ride. I have a beautiful family and dear friends, and I am in the third decade of a loving marriage that daily exceeds my expectations. Over the years, however, I have made countless mistakes, but I have learned many helpful things from them. The famous Buddhist image resonates. Like all of us, I am a lotus flower growing ever so slowly in the mud.

The Executive Ego: a Room Without a View
I sometimes ask my students to imagine that their interior reality is like a secret room, and to envision what it looks like. Does it have bare concrete walls with no windows, and a toilet over in the corner? If there is a window, does it have bars? Are those bars meant to keep people out, or to lock oneself in—or both? On the other hand, might one’s interior room be like Andrew Wyeth’s Sea Breeze, light and airy, with the curtains billowing with fresh ocean air? Many people live in a version of the former, I am afraid, and they spend their lives trying to make that little room more comfortable, with expensive furniture and the latest gadgets. They think a bigger house gives them more interior space, but just the reverse is true. Often, the more money, position, or power one has, the smaller and more protective is the room of the soul. Many people know this at some level, but relatively few believe it enough to alter their lives. I don’t think it is our birthright, though, to spend our lives in a small protected corner of our selves. The creation of the solid walls of ego usually happens when we are very young, and then this room solidifies into an internal control center, whose beliefs, knowledge, values, thoughts and feelings, do their level best to run the show. When it is successful, as it often is, the result is a parody of what Georgia O’Keeffe calls “the livingness of life.”

During my first few decades of life I created a small, safe room, a tiny protected ego that was furnished with the religious certainties of the Catholic Church, American middle class morality, and ultimately a Ph.D. To use Plato’s analogy, I wore the chains of 1950’s conventionality, whose links were forged in the fear of abandonment, shame, and disapproval. These chains were of my own making in response to cultural and familial conditioning, and they most likely made perfect sense at the time. They had no locks, so I had to hold onto them with all the force of my young psyche in order to maintain their protective shield.

When the time was right, I married, found a secure teaching job at a fine college in Vermont, fathered two boys, and bought a house. Complacent and secure in the American Dream, I was convinced I was walking a wide paved road to promotion, tenure, fame and fortune. I was following the blueprint I had been given for a happy and successful life.

And then the bottom fell out.

Continue reading

Living the Love of Wisdom #1

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

The URL of this blog is “Love of Wisdom,” and in a previous essay, I lamented the fact that not many university professors live lives of wisdom lovers. But just what is this “wisdom” we philosophers are supposed to love? And what difference would this love make in the perspectives, attitudes and behavior a person realizes in each moment of every day? What does it mean to live a wise life?

I find these questions essential to the calling of Teacher of the Love of Wisdom. As with most seemingly simple and obvious questions, however, they open a doorway to a lifetime of wonder—and this, I think, is a beautiful thing. In this essay I would like to offer a provisional reflection on the nature of Wisdom and the implications it has for the character of one’s life, with the hope that we might gain some insight into the fascinating challenge of living a pleasant, honorable, and just life.

According to Aristotle, Wisdom is a Virtue. The virtues are qualities of excellence (arête) that invigorate the mind (wisdom) and the heart (courage), and engender wholeness (temperance and justice). These qualities empower us to be the people we long to be, and to lead fulfilling lives.

I cannot claim to be an expert on the living a virtuous life, but I am very familiar with living a life inhibited by their opposite qualities, called “vices” by the Greeks. I have been foolish far more often than wise. Instead of dealing with life’s challenges with a thoughtful and conscious mind, I have often labored under the veil of illusion and irrational beliefs (see Albert Ellis). Instead of courageously moving through fear, I have allowed it to paralyze me or to act defensively (see Charlie Brown’s failure to ever kiss the little red-haired girl). The opposite of temperance (to be “in tune”) is a lack of integrity, or wholeness, that manifests in a dithering mind and an ambivalent heart. Finally, the unjust life is one of selfish egocentricity.

The virtues are mutually interdependent and complementary, existing together or not at all, and serve to form a mature human character. Wisdom tells us what is truly worthy of fear, while courage gives us the strength to break out of the prison of illusion. Similarly, integrity allows us to focus our energies wisely and courageously, while justice urges us to go beyond the protective walls of ego.

Aristotle goes on to say that “Happiness (eudaimonia) is activity in accord with virtue.” The capstone of human flourishing (eudaimonia) is not simply being virtuous, but acting virtuously. This means setting a firm intention to live life from the very best in oneself: from one’s highest wisdom and most loving heart, from one’s harmonious integrity and a sense of empathetic fairness.

Wisdom, then, might be placed in a nexus of qualities whose pursuit gives value and direction to an entire lifetime. It therefore seems best to think of the Love of Wisdom as a longing for perspective and compassion, balance and fairness, that evolves through an authentic commitment, renewed daily, to pursue and nurture the most empowering dimensions of one’s mind and heart. This evolution takes the form of a widening spiral of growth that leads toward ever deeper Wisdom and ever more effective loving in the world.

In tomorrow’s post, I will reflect upon the Dynamics of Transformation.


I loved every moment of my 45 years of university teaching–almost. 98% of the time was amazingly alive, but the 2% devoted to grading threatened to undermine the excitement of learning that had been taking place. My students and I had entered a field in which teaching and learning had become a collaborative effort. Together we had formed a joyful team of learning the skills of reading, dialoging, and assimilating congruent ideas into our individual repertoire of beliefs. But then came test time, and a not-so-subtle adversarial aura crept into the classroom. Now they had to answer my questions, not theirs, and my questions may not have been at all relevant to their interests or learning. Over the years I tried to create tests in whose answers I was sincerely interested. In Philosophy I believe there are no “right” answers. But there are “good” answers: answers that are informed, thoughtful, coherent, and ultimately personal. I found that if the students and I had been successful in creating a vital learning atmosphere, if we had managed to create a common vision of what we were doing and why we were doing it, then the tests and papers they wrote became a form of intimate communication. In a lovely book, The Art of Possibility, Ben and Roz Zander tell us that they go so far as to give every student an A on the first day of class. Then they asked their students to write an essay during the next two weeks imagining what they would say at the end of the semester about why they were A students. The idea here, it seems to me, is to give every student (and every person in your life) the unconditional love and respect that will allow them to flourish. Roz puts this beautifully: “In the absence of a vision, we are each driven by our own agenda, finding people whose interests match our own, and inattentive to those with whom we appear to have little in common. We automatically judge our players, workers, and loved ones against our standards, inadvertently pulling the wind from their sails. But with our new practice of granting an ongoing A in all our relationships, we can align ourselves with others, because the A declares and sustains a life-enhancing partnership.”

Certainly there are standards. This was especially relevant to my years as a flight instructor. It was obvious that the only reason for getting into the airplane was so that the student could become a skillful and safe pilot. Any grade less than A was unthinkable. (Who would like to fly with a pilot who had received a C in her flight training?). Again, as the Zander’s say, “a standard becomes a marker that gives the pair (teacher and student) direction. If the student hits the mark, the team is on course,; if not, well, “How fascinating.” The instructor does not personally identify with the standards, nor does the student identify personally with the results of the game.” If a flight student failed his test with the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA officials would be knocking on my door, wondering what kind of a lousy instructor I was.

I felt the same way in my university courses. A good part of my job, I thought, was to share my enthusiasm for entering the worlds of Plato or Lao Tzu or the Buddha or Camus, and igniting a joyful spark of learning in my students. Certainly, there were a few young people with pressing demands on their lives of which I had no knowledge. I could not, therefore, take their lack of engagement with my course personally. Rather than give them an F that would stay with them for the rest of their lives, however, I would suggest at mid-term that they drop the course. The vast majority of my students, however, were prepared for most classes, and came ready for action. I would tell them that if I were certain that they had done the reading, and participated well either verbally or in their written expressions, they would receive a B. I explained that it seemed to me that some few students were truly gifted, and that I would reserve the A grade for them. (I half-joked that if I had to go into another room to read an exciting paper to my wife, that was an automatic A).

This seemed to work pretty well, but of course some of my colleagues disapproved. One teacher bragged about how he had never given a passing grade to a single student of a particular nationality in all of his years of teaching. Others seemed attached to an adversarial role toward their students. The air in some faculty rooms was dense with complaints about stupid or lazy students. These types of teachers thought I was easy, but I am idealistic and perhaps naive enough to believe that if students can get a taste of the delicious flavors of learning, Socrates’ ideal of the teacher as midwife kicks in. The classroom becomes a sacred place where the human soul emerges. And when a midwife assists a woman at the birth of her child, there is no question as to whom the baby belongs.


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.”