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.