How is teaching possible?

The Novelty of the Question

Richard Rorty says somewhere that great philosophers are great in virtue of their ability to invent novel questions. In so doing, they change the topic of conversation.

The contemporary theologian Norman Wirzba asks a great question in his article on Emmanuel Levinas entitled “From Maieutics to Metanoia: Levinas’s Understanding of the Philosophical Task,” Man and World 28 (1995), 129-44. He asks,

How is teaching possible?

Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the formulation of the question. Simplicity is a virtue, and the question (following in the Kantian transcendental idealist tradition of inquiring into the conditions of possibility for a thing to appear as it does) is topic-changing. Answering the question meaningfully will serve to call into question what goes by the name of teaching but what does not deserve the name in our modern educational system.

My Reply

My reply heads in 2 directions.

1. There can be no learning without teaching.

2. Teaching is guiding a pupil toward higher aims.

Background: Bucking 2 Trends

The “banking” system of education was rejected most vociferously by Paulo Freire in the 1970s. In that model, the teacher sought to deposit knowledge into the student’s empty account. The assumption that knowledge is a one-way transaction from knower to ignoramus didn’t sit well with Freire.

This tradition has continued in the form of formal skills acquisition. An accounting student is taught the basic skills, principles, guidelines, and laws in order to ensure that a company is transparent in its presentation of its financial situation. In areas whose scope is limited, the “banking” system may be useful. Yet as a general model for education it is frightful.

The response to the “banking” system has been self-directed learning. On this view, the child is a little explorer, and the teacher is but a facilitator, an adviser who monitors her progress. I’m skeptical not of individual cases where the model works but of its generalizability. Does a young person really have the virtues, means, and resources at her disposal in order to know–mark this, underline it twice–what she ought to be looking for. And even if she has a sense of what she ought to be looking for, might there be higher aims that are not numerically identical with objects? Wisdom, for instance, which is not an object but a way of life? I’m afraid self-directed inquiry makes too many unwarranted assumptions about a person’s natural development as if, Rousseanly left to herself, she would turn out well.

But this is some pretty nonsense: persons, like plants, need direction and cultivation.

Teaching as Criticism or Teaching as Conversion?

Higher education’s stated reason for being, at least since the 1960s, has been the teaching of “critical thinking.” I hate “critical thinking.” I think it’s stupid. It’s stupid because the mode of criticism as a dominant mode of thought is suspect.

So all this talk about skepticism, disruption, provocation, disrupting, overturning, subverting, resisting, agency and victimization…–this whole discourse has far outlived its time.

There is another path, however. Norman Wirzba hints at it when he quotes Levinas: “The Other [here, the teacher] introduces us to the astonishing adventure called inspired living.” Teaching is conversion, metanoia, “transformative change of heart.” The teacher is a radiant being who lives a certain way and whose example I long to follow. His example I long to follow because I see in his life a model for living that is worthy of emulation. This is not idolatry, idealization, enthusiasm, or fanaticism. The teacher laughs at himself too for he is not perfect. The student keeps his wits about him for he is no lap dog.

As Confucius, Jesus, Socrates, and Buddha knew, teaching is leading, showing, directing, inquiring, above all, soul-changing.  James K.A. Smith, in his Christian book Desiring the Kingdom, has it right:

What if education, including higher education, is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information [the “banking” model], but about the formation of hearts and desires? What if we began by appreciating how education not only gets into our heads but also (and more fundamentally) grabs us by the gut—what the New Testament refers to as kardia, “the heart”? What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions—our visions of the “good life”—and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs into our thinking? What if the primary work of education was the transforming of our imagination rather than the saturation of our intellect?

The turn in pedagogy should be away from the banking model, the self-guided model, and the critical thinking model and toward a philosophy of self-transformation. According to this understanding, there is teaching only if there is learning, and there is learning only if there is teaching.


3 thoughts on “How is teaching possible?

  1. I don’t know about “There can be no learning without teaching.” I feel like I’m learning almost all the time, and yet there’s no one “teaching” me.

    If “teaching is guiding a pupil toward higher aims,” and it’s done right, we end up being more, in some cases, consistently open to learning from experience — not just our own, but that of others as well — once we’re off on our own.

    This took me back to my high school humanities course, which had a double theme: The unexamined life is not worth living, and what makes the good life? The nun who taught was a bit of psycho (she was forced to retire at the end of the semester because of her bizarre behavior and unique punishment methods), but the lessons learned have stayed with me throughout my life — they resonated with me deeply (but I tended to be rather philosophical). I don’t think that was true of most of my fellow classmates, though — that the lessons resonated with them. They much more practical, pragmatic — although the non-psycho nuns worked towards guiding us toward higher aims, it didn’t really take with many of them. The kind of life you’re talking about — that radiance (I always called it transcendance, but I think it’s the same thing we’re after) that you aspire to, maybe have even achieved, requires a lot of profound thinking (sometimes even a way of “critical” thinking) — and time. And neither that kind of profound thinking or time seem to be in great supply for many people.

    I had a conversation recently with one of my colleagues, in his mid-40s and very, very thoughtful, who told me he resented needing to go to sleep because there was much he wanted to do. I told him what a very wise professor once told me: You can do much, but it takes time and dedication, and sometimes you can do only one thing at a time. So don’t worry about what you want to do, or what you haven’t done; just focus on the project at hand. Another lesson that stayed with me for a long time, although I wasn’t able to “practice” it wholly until fairly recently!

  2. I’m sure we’ll have time to talk more about your wonderful stories, Alexis, but let me attend to your quibble with the thesis. The thesis could be reformulated moderately or more stringently.

    1. Moderate Version. The pupil must first have had some good guides in order to attend well to X. And this makes sense if we return to how a child learns, e.g., to count, to draw, to trust, etc.

    2. Stringent Version. At any time T, a person cannot learn something without being guided. I think this is true. When I first tried to read Kant, my teachers were all the guides who’d written excellent critical introductions to Kant’s Critiques. In this sense, their guidance was necessary; it was only through them that I could open Kant’s books. And then Kant was my guide in understanding reality. Etc.

    I’m inclined to say further that ascesis–my daily practice in whole thinking-emoting-acting– is being practiced “under the watchful eyes” of Pierre Hadot. For it was through him that I learned of their importance.

    In this broader sense, I’m always embedded in traditions of thought (say, teacher writ large). This is as true of my attention to the mourning doves as it is of my care for my conversation partners. So long as I live these traditions well, I then become a teacher and guide for the next. And the same is true of the pupils whom I teach in turn.

    There’s a wrinkle in the plot that I’ll just flag for now. There’s no reason to believe that the asymmetrical teacher/pupil relationship can’t be more fluid. I may be a teacher to P with respect to the good life, but P may be my teacher with respect to bike maintenance. And so on. So good teaching and pupiling is rather like good dancing, with each taking turns when it’s time.

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