A Philosophy of Teaching

muddle's picture

The proper function of the teacher is determined by the ends of education.

Those ends may be thought to vary from one educational framework to another. Within the context of a vocational school, for instance, the aim is to prepare the student for a career as, say, a dental hygienist. There, the curriculum is ordered after a concern to produce good dental hygienists (e.g., Pyorrhea 101, Modern Flossing: Strategies and Techniques) and the teacher is assessed according to her ability to impart the knowledge and skills for success in such a field.

The purpose of a liberal arts education is something less determinate and more grand. There are certainly concerns within any given major that, in some ways, parallel those seen on the vocational model regarding a specific body of knowledge or a particular set of skills. Philosophy students, for instance, should learn how to do philosophy. And a career is not a bad thing to have upon graduating from college.

But, to borrow from Aristotle, where vocational training is concerned with various subordinate ends,[1] a liberal arts education has the highest end or good more directly in view.

Allan Bloom wrote, “There is no real teacher who in practice does not believe in the existence of the soul, or in a magic that acts on it through speech.” I doubt that Bloom intended to suggest that physicalists or materialists do not make good teachers. He did, I think, mean at least this much: all good teachers believe that there is such a thing as human nature and, with that, the flourishing (or languishing) of things of that nature, and that the teacher’s role is to contribute, insofar as an education can contribute, to the flourishing of the student.

Bloom argued, and I agree, that an educator must operate with a vision of The Good Life. This is true, I think, regardless of the fact that there are competing theories of human nature (not to mention ultimate reality), and, thus, competing accounts of what such flourishing amounts to.[2] To suppose that The Good is simply up for grabs is to be devoid of the unifying goal that provides the very raison d’être and incentive for the liberal education. [3] In that case, education is reducible to sophistry and teachers are its practitioners. While there may well be sharp disagreement among faculty regarding the nature of the human good life, they should be united in the conviction that there is a truth of the matter and that the chief aim of an education is to discover and implement that truth.

Of course, a liberal education is strictly neither necessary nor sufficient for living well as a human being. There are liberally educated persons who are scoundrels and fools,[4] and there are certainly means beyond the halls of academe for acquiring wisdom and cultivating virtue. But it is beyond dispute that, where other things are equal, a liberal education is conducive to the examined life. The teacher’s role is to equip the student for that life.

The student may thus acquire the requisite knowledge and capacities for achieving a critical stance, thus breaking free of the mere prejudices of time or place. This aim is incompatible with attempts at indoctrinating students with perceived orthodoxies, old or new, or quelling the corresponding “heresies.” The nearly inevitable result of such attempts is that “intellectual pacification” is had at the sacrifice of “the moral courage of the human mind,” as J. S. Mill put it. Truth is more likely to flourish and be discovered in an environment that welcomes intellectual diversity and encourages open and honest debate.

The aim, then, is to prepare students for participation in what has been called The Great Conversation, so that they are not only conversant regarding the great ideas, but are equipped with the tools for assessing competing ideas for themselves. The classroom should be given to that Conversation in the hope that the same will carry over into the student’s life and career.

Beyond this, the student may develop new capacities for appreciating areas of learning or works of art or literature to which she may have otherwise remained blind. One of the aims of education according to Aristotle was for the student to come to be “pleased by the right things.” Pushpin is not as good as poetry, and an important aim of education—-particularly in the present cultural climate—-is to enable students to see for themselves, as “competent judges,” why this is so.[5]

Within the first five minutes of my freshman orientation—the first five minutes of what proved to be fourteen years of formal education—the presiding professor told us, “You probably think that on the day you graduate you will have completed your education. I’m here to tell you that, on that day, you will just then have found the library.” As he saw it, a chief goal of an undergraduate education is to instill a certain attitude toward the material, one of interest and inquisitiveness, and, with this, to cultivate intellectual virtues and habits of mind that will serve the graduate as a student for life, even in the event that formal education ends with the baccalaureate.

That professor convinced me of this philosophy, and some of what made his case compelling included his own obvious passion for the material and his demonstration of those very virtues and habits that are the marks of the educated person. It was virtually impossible to conceive him at the moment being anywhere or doing anything other than standing before us lecturing on ancient history. My hope is that my own students make similar assumptions about me.


[1] Flossing is subordinate to dental hygiene. Dental hygiene is subordinate to overall health (and, perhaps, successful mating). These, in turn are subordinate to further ends, everything terminating in whatever is the Highest End.

[2] Indeed, the sort of intellectual autonomy that is a part of the aim of education on my view is itself a means to assessing these competing theories.

[3] And to have precious little to say or contribute to the “Great Conversation” mentioned below.

[4]Socrates was mistaken. Knowledge is not sufficient for virtue.

[5} I have, of course, Mill’s famous passage in mind: “Better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Mill insisted that this was true even if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion. And C.S. Lewis writes in An Experiment in Criticism, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less of a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others…. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

muddle's blog | login to post comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Submitted by Bonkers on Sun, 09/21/2008 - 12:06pm.

Muddle, I enjoyed reading your philosophy of teaching, but I must say
that if their was such a thing as a thing called "true and need not be debated," then we wouldn't need to teach how to find it any more!

Since you also are still learning, as your college professor told you, how can you be sure you know all about that which you say?

Without giving a definite opinion of what you say is the truth about maybe several different theories, how is one to choose from your explanations? You don't often seem to do that!

I realize there are rules, or guidelines, or certain knowledge that one must apply to explanations or actions but sometimes all that is ignored for expediency.

Even the assurance that everything you say is consistent and logical, doesn't make it the truth, necessarily.

Brainstorming with all levels of experience and knowledge usually gets to a sufficient truth.
Our government tries to operate that way but greed and ignorance often get in the way.

I don't know how one teaches kids to avoid that in this the 21st century!

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.