We need a philosophy of education

Thomas Aquinas, who in many ways is the pre-eminent teacher of the Church, asked whether it was really possible to teach another person anything at all.

I say this is a sign that he really was a classroom teacher.

In the first part of the Summa, Q 117, he asks whether “one man can teach another, as being the cause of his knowledge”. My favorite objection he lists is the fourth one:

Further, the teacher does nothing in regard to a disciple save to propose to him certain signs, so as to signify something by words or gestures. But it is not possible to teach anyone so as to cause knowledge in him, by putting signs before him. For these are signs either of things that he knows, or of things he does not know. If of things that he knows, he to whom these signs are proposed is already in the possession of knowledge, and does not acquire it from the master. If they are signs of things that he does not know, he can learn nothing therefrom: for instance, if one were to speak Greek to a man who only knows Latin, he would learn nothing thereby. Therefore in no way can a man cause knowledge in another by teaching him.

I think most teachers could think of many instances in their experience that line up pretty well with that description!

You’ve got your students who already know stuff, and in some real way already have a kind of incipient grasp of your lesson before you even begin. They do just fine, with or without you it seems, and they ask all sorts of insightful questions about a topic they already love–or at least, a topic they grasp enough to be willing to investigate further.

But then you have other students who seem to know hardly anything at all–at least, not the things you think are important that they know–and by the end of the lesson it’s unclear if they are any better off than before. With or without you, they struggle.

I have always been rather disturbed by a passage in the Gospels where Jesus describes something very much like this:

The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’ (Matthew 13:10-13)

This principle–“to him who has, more will be given; to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”–seems to be an accurate observation about life in general and education in particular, but it also seems extremely unfair and upsetting.

Does Jesus speak in parables because stories are the best way to reach those of us who have not been granted “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom”? Or is he speaking in parables, in a veiled way, in order to keep those mysteries hidden? I don’t know.

When I read Thomas’ question about whether or not one person can teach another person, I go back and try to remember how I learned things. How did I learn to write a thesis statement, or incorporate a quote? How did I learn to read? How did I actually learn to memorize Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides”? How did I learn to play that first chord on the guitar (it was D)?

It’s tricky. It’s hard to remember. It’s especially hard to unpack how one learned about the things one really loves—because they seem so intuitive and “(con)natural”—to use an Aquinas term. This makes it harder, in some ways, to teach things that you really love to someone else.

In some cases, I remember teachers being involved in the process of my learning, but many of these instances seemed for me to involve largely an interior process, a personal negotiation with reality, a task I had to wrestle with myself.

I remembering seeing the red marks scrawled all over my sophomore year summer essay, and then trying to apply that feedback (“your thesis needs to be arguable! split infinitive! tenuous connection!”) when I was writing my next essay. I saw on the chart where I was supposed to place my fingers on the frets of the guitar, but I had to bend my own small hands in various contortions in order to release the appropriate sound from the strings—and I had to do that over and over and over until I didn’t have to think about where my fingers belonged anymore.

I find it interesting that educational theories in the last thirty-plus years have focused on students learning rather than teachers teaching—and although perhaps when taken to extremes that approach underestimates the value of teachers as “experts”, as many classical educational models claim—there is something rather Aquinas-esque about the student-centered approach.

With gifted students, teachers sometimes feel superfluous. With really struggling students, teachers can feel helpless.

So, can you teach someone else something?

Or, despite popular perceptions of education, is learning really an interior cognitive task that only the individual can perform for herself?

In his answer to the question, Thomas Aquinas starts off by acknowledging how complicated the process of learning is: “I answer that on this question there have been various opinions.” Note that he says this after having already listed some of those opinions in the objections. There are more.

One of the opinions he explores in his answer is that of the Platonists, who perhaps veer too far in the student-centered direction in theory of how learning happens. They

held that our souls are possessed of knowledge from the very beginning, through the participation of separate forms, as stated above (I:84:4); but that the soul is hindered, through its union with the body, from the free consideration of those things which it knows. According to this, the disciple does not acquire fresh knowledge from his master, but is roused by him to consider what he knows; so that to learn would be nothing else than to remember. 

That is, according to the Platonists, the teacher isn’t actually giving the student any new knowledge at all; she is merely prodding him to “remember” something he already has inside of him!

I’m glad that Aquinas explicitly discusses this view, because as strange as it sounds, the process of teaching and learning often really does feel that way. Students who already know a lot are the ones who exclaim “Oh!!” in recognition during your class—almost as if they are remembering something. To “recognize” the truth seems awfully similar to this idea of “remembering” it.

You can hear echoes of this theory today in the literature that emphasizes student “construction” of their own knowledge— as if all the pieces of knowledge are already there, they just need the encouragement or proper environment in which to build those pieces of prior experience in whatever way makes the most sense to them. In this conception, the teacher is more of a facilitator than a source of knowledge.

But Aquinas doesn’t follow the Platonists. His view of how learning happens is more nuanced.

I’m still unpacking his complex answer– but part of what he seems to be saying is that learning happens on both an exterior and interior level:

In order to make this clear, we must observe that of effects proceeding from an exterior principle, some proceed from the exterior principle alone; as the form of a house is caused to be in matter by art alone: whereas other effects proceed sometimes from an exterior principle, sometimes from an interior principle: thus health is caused in a sick man, sometimes by an exterior principle, namely by the medical art, sometimes by an interior principle as when a man is healed by the force of nature.

I think he is saying that learning–the process of becoming educated–is like the process of being healed. Both an “exterior principle” (like the work of a doctor) and an “interior principle” (the work of the body) are involved.

At the same time, Thomas emphasizes the interior principle as being primary; that is, the fact that any exterior principle (like the instruction of a teacher) can only help or strengthen the interior principle (the intellectual work of the student), which is where the real learning is happening:

Secondly, we must remark that the exterior principle, art, acts, not as principal agent, but as helping the principal agent, which is the interior principle, by strengthening it, and by furnishing it with instruments and assistance, of which the interior principle makes use in producing the effect. Thus the physician strengthens nature, and employs food and medicine, of which nature makes use for the intended end.

Therefore it is possible to teach someone else something, but not in the sense of dropping knowledge into him like you might put apples into a bucket. What makes the endeavor so mysterious is that a teacher must encourage, inspire, and explain something to the student, so that the student herself can engage with the content interiorly in order to grasp it. Learning is not something that can be forced; the student’s own agency is deeply involved.

But the teacher is not thereby rendered superfluous:

Now the master leads the disciple from things known to knowledge of the unknown, in a twofold manner.

Firstly, by proposing to him certain helps or means of instruction, which his intellect can use for the acquisition of science: for instance, he may put before him certain less universal propositions, of which nevertheless the disciple is able to judge from previous knowledge: or he may propose to him some sensible examples, either by way of likeness or of opposition, or something of the sort, from which the intellect of the learner is led to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.

Okay, so, a teacher can give examples that tap into the student’s “previous knowledge” and experience, or she can invite the student into new experiences (“sensible examples”) in order to invite the learner “to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.” I can read stories to my students. I can give them examples of good writing. I can break down those examples into small, focused pieces. I can give them something new.

The teacher, according to Aquinas, also acts like a doctor:

Secondly, by strengthening the intellect of the learner; not, indeed, by some active power as of a higher nature, as explained above (I:106:1I:111:1) of the angelic enlightenment, because all human intellects are of one grade in the natural order; but inasmuch as he proposes to the disciple the order of principles to conclusions, by reason of his not having sufficient collating power to be able to draw the conclusions from the principles. Hence the Philosopher says (Poster. i, 2) that “a demonstration is a syllogism that causes knowledge.” In this way a demonstrator causes his hearer to know.

It sounds like Aquinas is saying one can go step-by-step through a logical demonstration or process with a student, leading him by the hand to the proper conclusion if he doesn’t yet have “sufficient collating power” to get there himself. Similarly, a doctor could give a prescription or propose a specific activity (extra rest, drinking lots of liquids) that helps the body do what it cannot do by itself, or is having difficulty doing by itself, to rid itself of a particular disease.

His reply to objection 3 is helpful here:

The master does not cause the intellectual light in the disciple, nor does he cause the intelligible species directly: but he moves the disciple by teaching, so that the latter, by the power of his intellect, forms intelligible concepts, the signs of which are proposed to him from without.

I invite anyone with greater knowledge of Aquinas to weigh in to my reading of him there—I might not be fully getting it. (In other words, I am willing to learn! to be taught! to be assisted in my “insufficient collating power”!)

It is true that Thomas Aquinas did not have access to modern science and psychology. But he was a teacher, and, I suspect, drew a lot from his own observations about teaching others in unpacking this question.

I think we in the Church need to do some serious work looking at the thought of Aquinas and others, and looking also at the findings of contemporary science, psychology, and educational research in light of Christian anthropology in order to develop a robust philosophy of education.

What does it mean to be educated? Is there only one way to be educated well? What are the ends of education, and how do we reach them? What does good teaching look like? What does learning look like? How do people learn, anyway–and therefore, how should we go about teaching? What are the responsibilities of the student, and of the teacher, to one another, to themselves, to the subject? Where does virtue come in–and holiness?–neither of which are dependent upon intellectual prowess, as the history of the saints suggests? To what extent is Catholic education about evangelization and to what extent is it about inquiry and knowledge?

Without articulating clear answers to these (and other) questions, we find ourselves limping along in Catholic schools, adopting unquestioningly or rejecting too hastily the secular models of education around us.

Blessed Cardinal Newman, who is about to be canonized, had a few things to say about these things.

Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.

It is well to be a gentlemen, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,—pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim.

(The Idea of a University, Discourse V)

That is, acquiring knowledge and even cultivating one’s intellect are important and noble aims. We need a better understanding of how those things happen in order to formulate a more precise approach to Catholic education. But they are not the only thing. Formation in virtue and instruction in living the faith are even more important. Yet, as Aquinas noted earlier, there are exterior and interior principles at work, some beyond our reach or control.

Richard Wilbur has a beautiful poem about writing, but when I read it I often think about the process of learning in general. His attitude toward his daughter is so very much like the attitude of teachers toward their students. Watch the starling in this poem—and watch the speaker watching the starling. It sounds, to me, like a teacher watching a student wrestling with a new and challenging subject.

The Writer

Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Questions of work and identity, especially for teachers

There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few years in Catholic circles regarding problems with perpetual discernment–a phenomenon among many young people influenced by both a genuine desire to follow the will of God and an oft-cited anxiety around commitment that seems to afflict millennials more than previous generations.

As a result, many of us find ourselves continually discerning but never deciding. Or we try new things but do not fully invest in them–we go on a retreat here or there, we explore Catholic dating sites (well, I don’t), we try out a young adult’s group or bible study, we test out the waters, wondering when they’ll calm down a bit and stop seeming so stormy and treacherous…

Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)

Oh, right.

But there’s another problem going on here regarding discernment, and the best way I know how to get at it is to explore it from a (former?) teacher’s perspective. But even that parenthesis indicates my problem:

I was a teacher for eight years. Am I still, even though I no longer teach high school, even though I no longer have a classroom and grade papers and lesson plan? You see, there’s this part of me that wants to justify still holding some kind of claim to that title. Perhaps, because: if I’m not still a teacher, then who am I?

Not everyone defines herself by her job description, and some jobs seem more intimately tied to one’s sense of self than others. But if we think of doctors, police officers, soldiers, writers, poets, carpenters–and teachers–we might realize that a lot of folks see their jobs as outer expressions of their inner personalities.

And so the paralysis of perpetual discernment is not only afflicting those trying to decide whom to marry or those trying to decide whether to join consecrated life; it also seems to afflict many more people now in their professional choices. Many of us were told when we were young you can be whatever you want to be even more often than we were fed Disney love stories. The latter seems to involve fate or Providence–but the former, the loneliness of choice.

I’ve recently been auditing a seminar on Work and Vocation for undergraduates, led by my boss and colleague. He notes that many young people today are overwhelmed by a sense that they must find meaningful work–not just dignified work. That is, they feel they must search for a career that is not only lucrative but also engaging, that calls upon their creative capacities, talents, and interests–that somehow affords them an authentic expression of themselves. He contrasted this experience with that expressed by Lars Svedson’s description of his father in the mid-twentieth century:

My impression was always that he, for the most part, enjoyed working at the shipyard. Yet he was also eager to leave at exactly 3:30pm every single workday, and as a child I usually met him at the gates of the shipyard before we walked home together. There was a very strict distinction between work and leisure, and my father had limited contact with his work colleagues outside the workplace. If a particularly close colleague had fallen ill, he might pay him a visit in the afternoon, but otherwise work and leisure were strictly isolated social spheres. Questions as to whether his job was “meaningful” or whether it was an expression of his “true self” do not seem to have occurred to him. (Svedson, Work 1)

That’s the kind of work/life distinction I always idealized as a teacher, but it was never one that made sense to me if I remained being a teacher.

You see this conflation of job and identity a lot in the teaching profession, and I think it is intensified in Catholic circles. Not only am I a teacher, I am also a disciple of Christ, commissioned to invite other disciples. I’m not just supposed to teach a subject, I’m supposed to form persons.

My experience of being a teacher is wrapped up in my experience of discipleship, of following Christ, of serving the Church. If I stop being a teacher, what happens to all that?

I left teaching in large part because it felt like being in an unhealthy relationship with a bad boyfriend who was super demanding and not very good with boundaries. That could indeed be part of why I and (I believe) many other teachers who leave the profession struggle with questions of identity afterwards. But setting co-dependency and other issues aside, I think there is something beautiful about the connection between work and identity; the sense that your work was an authentic expression of your unique interests and gifts. There was something truly unique in teaching that called to you, and calls to you still, even if you are discerning out of it for whatever reason. Most people enter teaching out of a profound desire to do some good, to do something meaningful, to share a particular love of a discipline or even a way of life with others. That desire doesn’t just go away when you leave, nor should it.

I remember during my first and second years of teaching a lot of my friends were getting married and having kids. And I remember thinking to myself, as I sat behind my desk watching a group of my first seniors take their final exam, with a sudden surprise, “I haven’t been given that right now, but I have been given this; I have been given these kids.”

It’s hard to leave an experience like that.

But should I approach my work in that way—in the way many people in the modern Church talk about Vocation with a capital V?

Well, I suppose Flannery O’Connor did. In her Prayer Journal, she wrote,

I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually—like this today.

Writing for her, and for most people who are truly great writers, isn’t a job. It’s a vocation in the sense of calling. Writers through the ages from Homer to Milton have cited the gods or muses that called forth from them the opening lines of their epic works–they talk about the experience as if they almost did not have a choice but to write down what they “heard.”

And though I can’t say I felt quite that way as a teacher, I think the experience is more akin to that than to landing an executive director position at a big corporation.

But if work is tied up in vocation, it’s also tied up in the questions of discernment with which we began. And in addition to struggling with discernment, whether one is discerning one’s way into the water or out of it, I think a lot of us struggle with questions of work and identity, or work as identity. And not in a workaholic kind of way (though maybe that, too) but in a quasi-spiritual kind of way.

It would be easy to say, “Well, obviously you are more than what you do!” It’s just as easy to say, “Obviously what you do shapes who you are!”

Whom you marry, or what religious order you join, or what job you accept determines, to a large extent, how you’ll spend most of your time. So how are you going to spend it? And how is that shaping who you become?

I can’t shake off this question: To what extent ought we to identify ourselves with our work?

Flannery, again—as a graduate student, wrestling with her vocation:

Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realize I don’t know what I realize. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it. […] All boils down to grace, I suppose. Again asking God to help us be sorry for having hurt Him. I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing. (Excerpts in the New Yorker)

I mean, you read that–“give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord”–and you think of her life, and you realize with fear and trembling that God said yes.

Her very next entry reads,

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.

So–again, I ask whomever may be reading this, to what extent ought we identify ourselves with our work, especially if that work is something like writing or teaching?

I have no straightforward answers, actually.

But I find it interesting that even though Jesus called Peter and the others to leave their day jobs and fishing nets behind, to embark on a completely new way of life of preaching and healing and miracle-working for which they were completely unprepared, he still said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

Their work was still to identify them somehow, to be characteristic of the radical new life to which he called them.

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew (Vocation de Saint Pierre et Saint André), 1886-1894.

An odd couple: shop class and word-craft contra mundum

It does seem rather strange that for the past twenty or more years, although many people have been lamenting the decline of the liberal arts in both the secondary and collegiate levels in favor of more “useful” or career-driven pursuits, there has not necessarily been a comparable rise in techne or craft or apprenticeship in secondary schools. 

There are, at least, robotics classes or robotics after-school clubs, and there are art classes, which involve some kind of physical engagement with material things beyond pen and paper, but there are very few home-ec or shop class courses left in most schools. For all the hand-wringing over reducing classical education in the liberal arts to mere career-prep, one does wonder how useful many of the courses students take in this supposedly utilitarian educational era actually are. The liberal arts and classical education advocates among us may be missing the mark somewhat if we are lamenting an over-emphasis on the practical in education. 

The above musings are provoked by my reading of the first few chapters of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work for a reading group I recently joined. From the back cover:

Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing.

Crawford intersperses personal narrative, detailed descriptions of grappling with stubborn motorcycles with history and philosophy as he diagnoses our dissatisfaction with abstracted office work.  But abstracted office work is often preceded by abstracted schoolwork.

In a chapter entitled “A Brief Case for the Useful Arts,” which paradoxically calls to mind many recent essays attempting to defend the liberal arts and humanities against the encroachment of more pragmatic areas of study, Crawford explains how “blue collar” trade and craftsmanship brings human beings into contact with a stubborn, material world that resists our manipulation and ideological interpretation.

In other words, shop class reorients us toward reality:

The craftsman’s habitual deference [unlike the consumer or typical student] is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life–a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good. Such a strong ontology is somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge institutions of the new capitalism, and with the educational regime that aims to supply those institutions with suitable workers—pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills. (19, emphasis added)

That last phrase could be easily inserted into many a typical defense of the liberal arts: we aren’t reducing education to “any single set of skills” but are preparing our students for life itself

But when Crawford says “unfettered” here his tone is unmistakably ironic: it is this lack of tethering to concrete things that has unmoored us from reality, from ourselves. 

You could quibble a bit over his identification of man-made objects and tools with the natural, physical world that we did not make, but I see his point.

I wonder… perhaps there could be a rapprochement between the liberal and utilitarian (“servile”?) arts as mutually ennobling and distinctly human endeavors—and mutually resisting the fragmented mishmash of undergraduate ideological offerings at your typical university or the lock-step college-prep courses at your typical high school?

At the risk of stretching his ideas too far, I will say that I’ve been surprised by how so much of what Crawford says about working with cars and motorcycles applies to working with a different kind of reality; not material, but nevertheless stubborn and resistant if you take it seriously: the world of words—of poetry and literature. 

He observes, “The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine” (17).

I mean, that description could easily describe Elizabeth Bishop crafting one of her attentive, perceptive poems about a fishhouse or a moose (the latter actually took her twenty years to finish). Her poems, though personal and warm, are famously self-effacing– she “gets outside of her own head and notices things” with a kind of relentless dedication rare even for poets.

In a story about a coffee table he made as a young man, Crawford muses on that object in the same way that many a poet has mused upon the (im)permanence of his poems: “Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future” (15). Crawford really sounds like a poet there, reflecting on the ability of his art(ifact) to outlast himself and to bring him into connection with others. One thinks of Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, or Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

“This,” of course, being the carefully-crafted poem that we’re still reading four hundred years later. Communion with the future, indeed.

In this same section, Crawford quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt in order to explain the satisfaction a mechanic experiences in successfully fixing a particularly troublesome engine, but his reflection speaks just as beautifully to the poetic act:

“The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.” All material things turn to dust, ultimately, so perhaps ‘permanence’ isn’t quite the right idea to invoke here. The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. (16)

Later, he argues that shop class has the potential to cultivate the virtue of humility and a unique way of reading the world: “Piston slap may indeed sound like loose tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue” (99).

And as he interweaves quotes from Iris Murdoch (this guy did get a Ph. D. in political philosophy from U Chicago), Crawford explicitly acknowledges the similarity between artist (poet?) and mechanic that I’ve been noting:

[…] to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of “unselfing.” […] “[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” This attempt is never fully successful, because we are preoccupied with our own concerns. But getting outside her own head is the task the artist sets herself, and this is the mechanic’s task, too. Both, if they are good, use their imagination “not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” (100, emphasis added)

There’s this strange overlap then, I think, between the “useful arts” and the “liberal arts”, between mechanics and poetics, between shop-class and word-craft—at least insofar as these human activities involve a wrestling with a reality that resists you, that calls you out of yourself and yet, in a way, gives you back to yourself. Both are deeply engaging, and, when done well, ennobling.

I included the phrase “contra mundum” (“against the world”) in this post’s title but maybe I ought to have said “pro mundo” (“for the world”). Both shop class and word-craft are very human activities that can orient us in a more humble attitude toward the world, yet against worldliness, and I think Crawford would agree with me there. It’s odd, isn’t it, to associate techne (practical knowledge) so closely with sophia (wisdom)?

But then again, Jesus was a carpenter.


Back to school tips for teachers

As they prepare for their first year, brand-new teachers often focus on educational theory, idealism, and policy. More experienced teachers, on the other hand, tend to take their methodologies and philosophical assumptions for granted. They spend the last weeks of summer break on the practical elements: setting up classrooms, making copies, and ensuring their previous years’ lesson plans are within easy reach.


But it seems to me that just the opposite approach is needed. Brand-new teachers need to focus far more on the practical day-to-day logistics, whereas veteran teachers need to spend more time reflecting on their experience and re-evaluating their philosophies of education.

Read the rest of my new article over at Public Discourse!

Loaves and fishes and stepping away from teaching

It’s strange.

I’m not standing on desks, hanging up posters, devising seating charts, making copies, and agonizing over my lesson plans for the first days of school.

Nor am I re-examining my classroom management techniques, watching a bunch of teaching videos, and looking at my notes from last year.

Every day for the past three weeks, I have gone to work without anxiety. I’ve arrived at 9:00am. I have left at 5:00pm. I have had a daily hour-long lunch break with no supervision duties. I have received no disgruntled emails, asked nobody to stay after class, and not taken one single piece of paper home from the office.

When I’m home, I don’t need to contact parents or grade papers or lesson-plan. I can, you know, cook dinner.

You see, I’m no longer teaching high school English.

My new position at a research institute will still involve working with students– I’ll be leading a seminar on lyric poetry in the fall for college undergraduates, and two more as yet unknown ones in the spring, and in the future I may lead seminars for high school students in the summers–but my day to day looks completely different now. And my new job description doesn’t include the word “teach.”

I remember, a little over four years ago, reading a blog post by another teacher I admire who was leaving her Title I school. She articulated her reasons for leaving this way:

[I]t feels like I have three choices: 1) stay where I am, continue working hard and destroy myself, 2) stay and protect myself by putting in less effort, or 3) leave and abandon a profession and kids I care about. (“What I Wish I could Tell Them About Teaching in a Title I School” Love, Teach)

I’ve never taught in a Title I school, and don’t pretend that my experiences over the past eight years have been nearly as challenging as hers. I have been really blessed with at the institutions I have worked in.

But, not to be dramatic, her words resonate with me. It wasn’t all that difficult a decision for me to leave the Catholic high school classroom behind for now. Even in eight years, I just couldn’t figure out how to be a good teacher and have a full life outside of school. It always felt like I had to make a choice– I could be a mediocre teacher and a happy person, or a great teacher and an emotionally-exhausted person. And I’m not alone:

Why Good Teachers Quit

I Feel Stuck in a Profession That’s Making Me Ill

How to Survive as an Introverted Teacher

Some teachers, thank goodness, have figured out how to strike that balance or even to flourish– but the secret has always evaded me. (I do have the suspicion that there is something fundamentally broken in our education system in the US, and even in many Catholic schools, where respect for the dignity of work and of the person should be much more apparent than it often is, but that’s a post for another time.)

I remember when I read this teacher’s article I wrote a brief post here expressing sadness and (rather dramatically) referenced Senator Smith’s “lost causes.” To see a teacher I identified with and admired so much leave her position shook me rather deeply at the time.

But, I also wrote, “Not everyone is called to be a teacher. And not everyone who is called to be a teacher needs to be one forever.”

I never thought that those words would ever apply to me.

I’m so grateful for the people I’ve worked with, and most especially all the students I have had, from whom I have learned so much. And I admit it: there’s a part of me that feels a little guilty for taking a step back, for taking a new job that pays more and demands less.

But I think there’s sometimes a glorification of over-extending oneself in the teaching profession. Catholic school teachers, in particular, are frequently thanked and applauded for their “sacrifices” and the ways they contribute to the mission of the Church. And this, of course, is beautiful–and all of us are indeed called to give ourselves away in love in lots of ways. The cross comes in various shapes and sizes and all of us are called to carry ours and to help others bear their own. Being a teacher is a great privilege and a noble vocation. But the “thank you for your sacrifice” talk can start to be problematic when we, perhaps unintentionally, spiritualize away real issues of justice.

After sending his disciples out on a rather intense journey of proclaiming the kingdom, casting out demons, and healing the sick, Jesus says to them, “Come away by yourselves and rest awhile” (Mk 6:31). I find this invitation comforting. God invites us into his work, but he also invites us into his rest.

In the same passage, Mark even notes “People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.” This detail always makes me smile because it reminds me of most teachers’ lunch “breaks.”

So the disciples get into a boat with Jesus and go to a deserted place… but, like high school students on the day of a test, the people find them and actually arrive there before they do! And watch how Jesus responds:

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

Did you notice? Jesus teaches the people. I kind of imagine the disciples sitting off to the side, napping or walking or chatting with one another, taking a break. The next line supports this–evidently Jesus teaches the people for a long time and the disciples eventually come over to tell him to wrap things up:

By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.” So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass.  The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to [his] disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate [of the loaves] were five thousand men.

You see, in this story, the tension between rest and work, between having “enough” for ourselves and giving our resources away to others. It’s the tension teachers feel all the time.

Jesus asks the disciples for the loaves and fish– the very little that they have– but he transforms that offering into enough for everyone, including the disciples themselves. Yet this is the kind of miracle only he is capable of. It’s not the kind of thing we can manage on our own, nor demand that we produce by our own efforts.

The passage ends, once again, with Jesus giving his disciples a break and then seeking rest himself:

Then he made his disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side toward Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And when he had taken leave of them, he went off to the mountain to pray. (cf Mark 6:34-46)

There comes a time, even for Jesus, when the work ends and the rest begins.

It’s not like this passage provides a clear answer to the dilemma of a teacher, even a Catholic school teacher, a disciple who is called to evangelize. But it does emphasize a few things: 1) Jesus values giving us rest, 2) Jesus asks us to give him the very little we have–to trust him, 3) Jesus takes care of other people and us, but with our participation.

I’ve been teaching ever since I graduated from college, so I’m not sure what this year will look like for me. And though I feel like I have a lot more time and energy to write, I’m not sure what this blog will look like, either. But I appreciate your reading. And I hope all of us, no matter what our work is, might take Jesus’ invitation to rest just as seriously as we take his invitation to offer him our loaves and fishes.

James Tissot, “La multiplicité des pains” at the Brooklyn Museum

What teaching has taught me about relationships

Text of a brief talk I gave at a luncheon at Notre Dame a few weeks ago:

Q: How has your ACE experience and the mission of ACE impacted the trajectory of your life? 

A:

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of June, I sat in a pew of Sacred Heart Basilica and watched a former student of mine from my very first year in ACE get married. It was a surreal, beautiful experience. Out of the blue, it seems, I had received an invitation in the mail, and then a request to do a reading at her wedding. I thought how strange it was that M. was now older than I had been when I was her English teacher eight years ago in Donaldsonville, LA. One of her bridesmaids was also a former student of mine, and other former students sat nearby in the pews. Watching them and praying with them during the Mass, I felt immense gratitude for the gift ACE gave me all those years ago in bringing these people into my life, and for sparking in me a great passion for the unique craft that teaching really is. Yet as I witnessed M. enter into her vocation and this radically new relationship with her now husband, a relationship that mirrors that between the Church and Christ, I realized how much ACE has radically changed the way I see relationships. 

So often, growing up, I thought of relationships primarily in terms of how they made me feel. Maybe that sounds a little naive, but I kind of thought that was what I was supposed to do. After all, a friend is a good friend if we feel safe with her and have fun with her, right? And isn’t a partner a good partner if we feel uniquely seen and understood by him? And certainly parents are good parents if they help us feel secure and at the same time push us to be our best! But ACE disrupted this self-referential view of relationships for me in a really necessary and beautiful way. 

ACE taught me that the relationships we form with our students are like both works of art and like science experiments. They require the care, precision, and planning of a painter or sculptor, but also the humility, openness, and willingness to adapt of a chemist–these relationships even may require safety goggles as various decisions we make result in unexpected explosions!

ACE taught me that sometimes relationships don’t feel very good at all. Good teaching and learning is often accompanied by frustration, uncertainty, and discomfort–for both the teacher and the student. 

ACE taught me to see teaching itself as a craft that doesn’t necessarily come naturally. “Common sense” approaches to classroom management, helping students read and write, or interacting with parents are not necessarily the best ones. Being a teacher is a more like being a doctor–you need to keep up with the best research in your field and to stay open to new discoveries and solutions, even if they challenge your habits.

ACE has helped me to realize that all relationships are rather like that. Not only have I learned to become a student of my students, but also a student of my friends, of my parents, of my community members. All relationships are crafts that require practice and flexibility and continual development and adjustment.

The Gospel reading for M.’s wedding was the story of the wedding at Cana. And even there, the two most perfect people– the divine Son of God and Mary, his immaculate mother–who, you might think, have all the right talents and gifts to interact with one another in a harmonious, conflict-free manner–seemed to strangely experience the need to adjust and adapt. Mary expects her son to help the bride and groom–“They have no wine!” Jesus expects His mother to understand that His actions are on a divine schedule– “My hour has not yet come.” There seems to be this moment of conflict, of even incomprehension. And yet Mary then says to the servants, and to all of us, with complete open-ness and trust in Jesus, “Do whatever He tells you.” And then, in something that seems like obedience and deference, the Son of God performs his first miracle: He changes the water into wine–because perhaps His hour has come after all.

It’s this kind of humble open-ness that both Jesus and Mary show one another in this story that ACE taught me to see as so essential to the art of teaching and, by extension, to the art of all relationship. By allowing ourselves to be humble students of one another, we open ourselves to be students–disciples–of Jesus. 

This year I am going to be leading seminars and developing curriculum for an institute that serves Princeton University undergraduates and develops summer programs for high school students. So my classroom is going to look rather different in the days ahead; yet I know that the relationships I will form there will be shaped by the dynamic, humble hermeneutic that ACE imparted to me–the pattern of openness and discipleship. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Mimesis, and Teaching Writing

As I explained in my last post, I am trying to make explicit a rather intuitive, implicit process–the act of writing about a poem.

So, I of course quote Flannery O’Connor as I attempt the beginning of the first body paragraph video:

“I write to discover what I know.” And believe me, that’s what I was doing. I was not sure where this essay was going to go or what I was going to say, and I hoped fervently that Flannery would once again turn out to be right as I fumbled my way narrating the first part of that paragraph.

Many of my students have been responding well to this step by step process. It may be a bit too slow for some of them– but even the ones who already know (intuitively or otherwise) how to write a poem analysis will benefit, I think, from making some of these good habits clear and explicit.

I tried making the video below as I had done the one above and the others before, thinking out loud as I wrote it. But, as I moved from merely describing or summarizing the poem to analyzing it, I found this dual level of thinking to be extremely difficult and distracting. I couldn’t focus on the poem AND focus on HOW I was focusing on the poem at the same time–at least, not adequately.

So, for the video below, I deleted my first attempt and simply finished writing the first body paragraph and then pressed the “record” button, explaining to my students my thinking process. I went sentence by sentence through the paragraph, immediately after I had finished writing it, to try to capture that elusive thought process that can seem so opaque to so many kids. I also employed a highlighting exercise to help them see the difference between summarizing a poem and analyzing or interpreting it. They need to do both.

The reason I am approaching teaching poetry analysis this way is largely because, when I try to think back and remember how I learned to write, I realize a lot of it had to do with imitating good writers. When I read lots and lots of C. S. Lewis in middle school, it seeped into my eighth grade English journal entries. When I read lots of Chesterton in high school, I found myself playing around with sentences and trying to make them sound more paradoxical (not always with elegant results). I’ve even noticed that some of my earlier blog posts here employ abrupt sentences with ending ironies that sound a little like Flannery O’Connor.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, says that art is imitation, or mimesis. Tragedy, for instance, is the imitation of a particular type of human action. Watching a tragedy can bring about catharsis, or the cleaning of our own pity and fear–and thus is an educative and even a healing experience for us.

Teaching itself is an art and I think needs to involve a lot of mimesis. We can’t just expect our kids to go and do something–we need to show them what that something looks like. After all, imitation is how we all learned to do so many things without fully even realizing it–to walk, to speak, to argue…

These acts of imitation are not always conscious or intentional, but if we can make them so for our students, we may be finding a way to work with their human nature instead of against it. There is a reason for the cliche “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” Whether we like it or not, we learn how to be human from the other humans around us–and, I would argue, we learn how to write from the writings we read.

 

TeacherCounselorParentCoachFriend Part II

Continuing from Part I–What does it really mean to be a teacher? What is our role in the lives of our students?

St. Thomas Aquinas actually has this beautiful image of the teacher as a doctor, and the act of teaching as an act of healing. (I highly recommend this great talk by Fr. Vivian Boland, O.P. on “The Healing Work of Teaching: Thomas Aquinas and Education” if you want to learn about it in depth.)

I mean, just think about that for a second.

As I mentioned before, there is a certain appropriate professional distance between the student and the teacher, as there is between the counselor or doctor and the patient.

Yet Aquinas draws this comparison for other reasons–namely, because of the actions of teaching and learning.

He says, “Learning is produced in the pupil by the teacher, not like heat in wood by the fire, but like health in the invalid by the doctor” (Treatise Of Spiritual Creatures. Art IX. in conjunction with a polemic against Averroës, as quoted here).

He also says, “We do not say that a teacher communicates knowledge to the pupil, as though the knowledge which is in the teacher is numerically the same as that which arises in the pupil. It is rather that the knowledge which arises in the pupil through teaching is similar to that which is in the teacher, and this was raised from potency into act, as has been said.  As the doctor is said to cause healing, although he works exteriorly, while nature alone works interiorly, so man is said to teach the truth, although he declares it exteriorly, while God teaches interiorly” (Aquinas, Questiones Disputatate de Veritate Q 11, a 1).

What is so lovely about Aquinas’ view is that the teacher, like the doctor, works in harmony with nature– that is, the teacher appeals to the capacity of reason that already belongs to the student. The teacher is not so much giving what the student does not have, but is rather cultivating, nourishing, and drawing out capacities that are already in him by virtue of his human nature. The teacher helps to actualize potentialities that already exist in the student.

giphy
Phil helps Hercules hone his “god-given” strength.

Moreover Aquinas seems to imply that the teacher is a kind of “coworker” with God– a favorite term of Pope Benedict as well, whose episcopal motto was “cooperatores veritatis” : coworkers of the truth. God does the interior work, according to Aquinas, but we have a part in the “exterior declaration” that God uses to bring about the inner transformation.

But the key is to remember that this image is an analogy–and so although there are elements in being a doctor that are like those in being a teacher, there are also elements that are unlike, even according to Aquinas.

I cannot heal my students of their physical, emotional, or mental infirmities in the same way a medical doctor or therapist can, because I am not trained to do so. I can, like any other human being, listen with attentiveness and sensitivity and care to whatever problems or sufferings they express, but in that sense I find myself more like a caring (but untrained) friend than like a counselor.

And yet, are teachers friends?

Yes, and no. Like friends, we are on a journey with our students toward the truth of whatever we are trying to teach. And like friends there is a certain level of equality through shared experience in the classroom and in the school community of certain events. And like Aristotle’s “friendship of virtue,” we are hopefully engaging in a relationship in which we encourage our students on to greater goodness, and likewise ourselves receive the ways in which they encourage us to greater virtue and love.

But as Aristotle also points out, equality is necessary for friendship. And there is a marked inequality in the student-teacher relationship. Even the most egalitarian among us would admit that there is, at least, an imbalance of power; the teacher has (some) authority over her students, and even evaluates their “performance” and evidence of learning. So friendship, in the traditional sense, is not even possible (nor, I would argue, advisable).

I’m still thinking about all this. More to come.

 

TeacherParentCounselorCoachFriend? Part I

What are we really?

As teachers, I mean.

I need some help with definitions.

Are we coaches? Do we teach our players how to “play the game” as it were– an important game, mind you– the game of school or college or life? Do we invest our energy in teaching kids skills and forcing them to practice them over and over again, day in and day out, until these skills become real habits? Are we called to be great coaches? Like Mr. Miagi?

tumblr_mklzm4VeUq1rwt2uzo1_500

Yes… but we are not drill sergeants in quite the same way. There is a qualitative element to the teacher-student relationship– or, should I say, content element that is markedly different from a coach’s role. The coach seeks to train the player to excel, usually in body but occasionally in mind (think Searching for Bobby Fischer) in terms of some specific skill–and the coach trains the student in such a way as to promote winning, to some degree. Any coach that does not care about the player or the team winning at all is, I would argue, a bad coach.

The competitive “winning” element is present also, to be sure, in teaching too– especially when you think of standardized tests and college acceptances and other “performance” elements. But teachers and students existed long before any of these competitive elements did, and so the heart of teaching itself must lie elsewhere. Even the fact that “teaching to the test” has become such a despised cliche in education suggests already that most teachers reject the notion that their role is primarily a coaching one, in which they must encourage the practice of skills conducing to a kind of winning or success. This practice and skills element is present and important, but cannot be all, if only because one can imagine a scenario in which a teacher has taught well and students have learned well even if the students have not performed well by external measures.

So, to account for this unquantifiable element of teaching, is it better to say that we are more like parents? The Church says in Gravissimum Educationis (which sounds pretty grave, right?) that parents are the “primary educators” of their children. And they are. For better or for worse. For richer or poorer. In sickness and in health, parents are the primary educators: in presence, in absence, in love, in dysfunction, in reading, in illiteracy (of many kinds), they certainly provide the most impactful pedagogy on their children whether they realize it or not. Although I firmly believe we teachers can have a big impact, we cannot, by ourselves, undo or reshape what has already been done.

So, are teachers supposed to be a kind of parent? Some schools (esp. Catholic colleges of a certain kind) seem to think so– these institutions use the phrase in loco parentis— “in place of parents”– to describe the role of their teachers. And you can sort of see why.

I just came back from a two day senior retreat with my kids, and I think sometimes they themselves want teachers, very desperately, to take on such a role. In the absence of a fully present parent, sometimes a caring teacher is the closest thing to a parent that child has ever experienced. And this vision of the role of a teacher can be a beautiful thing; we are, in many ways, like parents. When I talk to my friends who already have children, and they talk to me about the ways they are seeking to teach their children and respond to them with “love and logic,” I immediately relate because I am doing the same thing with my students. I am setting boundaries to help them feel safe but also to teach them about appropriate behaviors. I am giving them routines and expectations and ways to voice their feelings and concerns, just like good parents do. I’m listening and learning and feeling frustrated and administering consequences and making mistakes and hoping that I’m not messing [them] up too much by my imperfect gestures of love and discipline.

And, especially in the absence of parents who know how to do these things to even a marginal degree, sometimes what students need is a caring man or woman to show them what being becoming adult means and entails.

source
John Keating (Robin Williams) shows his beloved young men how to… be men? Hm.

anigif_enhanced-26503-1433393059-2
Miss Honey actually adopts Matilda and becomes her mom, saving her from her horrible parents. I think sometimes as teachers we wish we could do this on occasion with certain students.

And yet, we teachers aren’t actually parents to our students, and we cannot be. We spend many hours with them– sometimes more hours than their actual parents do– but we do not go home with them. We do not live life with them in the same way. Teachers are tasked with teaching their students specific content– English and Math and Science and Theology and History, or one of these, or all of these– yet parents are tasked with something much greater and deeper and more intimate:

Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.(11) This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking. Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man, in which the well-rounded personal and social education of children is fostered. Hence the family is the first school of the social virtues that every society needs. It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and office of the sacrament of matrimony, that children should be taught from their early years to have a knowledge of God according to the faith received in Baptism, to worship Him, and to love their neighbor. Here, too, they find their first experience of a wholesome human society and of the Church. Finally, it is through the family that they are gradually led to a companionship with their fellowmen and with the people of God. Let parents, then, recognize the inestimable importance a truly Christian family has for the life and progress of God’s own people. (12) (Gravissimum Educationis  emphasis added)

So, as teachers, and especially Catholic school teachers, we work with parents and support them in education, but we do not replace or take on the privilege and cross of parenthood.

Okay, then.

So, are we more like counselors, then?

There’s this level of professional distance that parents do not have with their children that we, as teachers, clearly ought to have. As much as we idealize the Professor Keatings and Ms. Honeys of our imagination, there is a level of boundary and distance that is, actually, very loving. It is the kind of distance that allows for the unique and beautiful kind of relationship that is possible between students and teachers and yet is not possible in the same way between parents and their children. This kind of professional distance is similar to that between the counselor or doctor and the patient.

(To be continued.)

What are your thoughts on what a teacher really is, or ought to be?

Part II