Wednesday, February 8, 2012

On Teaching

Roman boys were sitting in the class like this, but with much more students.

I don't often think about what it means to be a teacher. Frankly, I usually too busy actually doing it to give it the thought it likely deserves.

I suspect that at some level, most students (and certainly most parents) assume that education is fundamentally functional, that is, it is intended to convey a set of practical skills which, when the education is complete, may then be sent out into the world and by the magical process of the marketplace, turned into money, a house with a two car garage, and children who, in their turn, will themselves need to be educated.
Of course, this definition might work for the sciences or engineering (or it might not, those really aren't areas I know much about), but when you're dealing with the humanities, this becomes a difficult proposition. There really isn't much of a living to be made with the "skills" gained from learning how to read and explain a book or an idea. In fact, in order to turn these particular skills into money, one essentially has to go back into the system and teach, either at the high school or college level.

So, at the end of the day, just what on earth are we doing as teachers anyway?

One suggestion, responding directly to the "practical" mentality," is given by Peter Augustin Lawler:
 Some claim liberal education should be about what’s required to be a productive citizen.  I’ve already said that the case that liberal education makes us more productive is weak.  The case that it can contribute to citizenship is stronger.  To be a citizen is to be a part of a particular place in the world with its own traditions, customs, understanding of justice, and both privileges and duties.  A citizen needs to do a lot of untechnical reading unrelated to most work to experience himself or herself as properly at home.  So citizenship really does require “civic literacy,” as long as that phrase is understood broadly enough.  That education might be called liberal education insofar as it’s required to be a free man and woman located particular, political place in the world. Still, to be a citizen purely speaking is to be all about service to a country (or “city” in the Greek sense).  Each of us knows that he or she is more than a productivity machine and more than a mere citizen.  It’s finding out who we are when we’re not working for money or our country (or even our family) that liberal education is all about.  In the pure sense, liberal education isn’t about citizenship—although it far from abolishes the duties of citizenship,  just as it as far from abolishes the duty to work.
Another perspective is given by Jeffrey Polet over at Front Porch Republic, (which starts off talking about one topic and ends discussing the nature of education). At one point, Professor Polet cites a Wendell Berry work (one of those which I have not read):
Consider, for example, Berry’s telling of the story of Hannah Coulter. She was not a native to Port William, having spent her early years in Shagbark. She was encouraged to move to Port William to “make something of herself,” to find a place where she could deliver on her promise and native gifts, leaving behind her own family. Repeating this narrative, when she had children of her own she sent them to be formally educated, believing that she owed it to them. Berry writes:
“The way of education leads away from home. … The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have to got to move on.”
And then later, when reflecting back on the absence of her children from her life, Berry has Hannah say something I could easily imagine my mom saying:
“When I think back to the childhood of my own children now, I remember that the thought of their education was always uppermost. … We wanted them to have all the education they needed or wanted, and yet hovering over that thought always was the possibility that once they were educated they would go away, which, as it turned out, they did. We owed them that choice, and we gave it to them, and it might be hard to argue that we were wrong. But I wonder now, and I wonder it many a time, if the other choice, the choice of coming home, might not have been made clearer.”
That, as well as anything, sums up the paradox within which many of us on the Porch operate. Education was not simply a way up, it was an appropriate development of our native gifts. But the way up led out, and we were never told there was a choice of coming home, only a choice of leaving – which is, of course, not a choice at all. The deep suspicion for some of us on the Porch is not that we want to restrict people’s freedom of choice, but that our choices aren’t as rounded, aren’t as full as we often believe them to be, for it is not our willing and doing, but that which happens to us above and beyond our willing and doing that is the proper province of our thinking.³ But knowledge always comes too late.
In other words, the point of education is to help individuals round out the abilities and talents they already possess, so that they can live the fullest human life possible.

So, like I said, I'm not sure what the point of teaching is, other than it's more than just passing on information. I suspect the truth is some form of balance between the various options. Teaching should be practical, useful for leisure, and helpful in developing the inner abilities already present in the individual. Beyond that? Well, maybe it bears more thought...

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