Thursday, March 22, 2007

Teaching as an Ideal: Part II

[By Michael Bycroft]

[Through Education, the mind] must be turned around from the world of becoming together with the entire soul, like the scene-shifting periactus in the theatre, until the soul is able to endure the contemplation of essence and the brightest region of being. –-Plato, Republic

In my previous post I considered the thought that people regress intellectually when they become schoollteachers, and in pointing to some ways in which this idea is mistaken I hope that I went some way towards showing that schoolteaching, as well as being an valuable activity (which we knew all ready), is also an appealing activity. In this post I want to look at some other reasons why schoolteaching appeals.

Before I start looking at those reasons, I should say that this post is more a polemic than a philosophical essay. My main intention is not to argue that schoolteachers make a highly valuable contribution to society; nor is it mainly to discuss the problems that are present in present-day schools, and which make it particularly important that bright and ambitious people make some contribution to schools, by teaching or otherwise. Rather, my intention is as stated in the introduction: to point out some features of schoolteaching that make it an interesting and stimulating thing to do.

The result will most likely not be a raising of the station of schoolteacher up to the grand heights that Plato reserved for his educators, partly because there is more to the education of youth than schoolteaching, partly because there was more to Plato’s notion of education than the education of the youth, and mainly because I am not Plato. But I hope at least to raise the station of schoolteacher out of the rather badly-lit and shabby-looking place which, if my (admittedly limited) experience of the public teaches me well, it tends to occupy in the public mind. If my experience is a poor teacher on this one, then my thoughts here can do no harm (even if they did make their way into the public mind).

Let me begin by applying Plato’s metaphor in another way, to the role that schoolteachers perform instead of to the esteem with which they are regarded. Roughly, I take the role of schoolteacher that of transmitting the insights of higher learning to the young people of the world: they are the go-betweens, taking what they can from the pure and sunny region of adult learning and using both this learning itself, and their inner awareness of its worth, to draw their cavedwelling students into a more exhalted region. Plato’s metaphor, as he used it, was rich with moral and political connotations, and although these aspects of the “passage into the light” are important in any full account of the school-teacher’s role, my emphasis here is upon the intellectual aspects of the passage. In my previous post I argued that the view of schoolteaching as an intellectual regression is misguided. In this post I do not want to go against that claim, but I do want to emphasise the ways in which the role of schoolteacher differs from that of the scientist, the novelist and the professor, and from other positions whose work mostly takes place in a region “closer to the sun”, so to speak.

My first point is that schoolteaching mixes together the theoretical and the practical sides of knowledge. By this I do not mean that the schoolteacher, more than the physicist (say), mixes together a theoretical understanding of mathematics with a practical ability to manipulate measuring devices, to record data, and so on. That is plainly not the case. Many disciplines, at their cutting edge, far removed from the world of the schoolteacher, involve work that takes place at the interface between practical and the theoretical knowledge. What I mean to say is that that the work of schoolteaching takes place at the interface between knowledge gathered in formal, knowledge-oriented settings (whether that knowledge is practical or theoretical), and real life. The schoolteacher, at least I understand the position, is required not just to draw the various strands of learning down into the classroom: she is also required to connect learning up with the various strands of ordinary life. This is partly a matter of showing to students the value of formal learning: to show, for example, why physics can be useful in real life, and also (perhaps more importantly) how it can, independently of any instrumental advantages, add depth and pleasure to the life a student. But it is also a matter of showing students the obviousness of formal learning, the link between physics and commonsense: to show how one can be lead to discover and to justify the principles of physics just by extending and focussing the mental processes that occur naturally in any persons’ daily life.

And why is it appealing to work at this interface between formal learning and real life? I think it is appealing because by working at that interface one gets a richer understanding of one’s subject. I am biased here, because my feeling is that the most interesting question to ask about a subject is: “what is the connection between this subject and ordinary life?” (I feel this with regards to philosophy, for example, as I describe here.) Other people may not feel this to the extent that I do, and there is not much I can say to those people, since my feeling here is more a judgement of taste than of reason. But I suspect that most people have at least some sympathy for my feeling here, perhaps more so in humanity subjects than in mathematics. And to those people at least, the intimacy of the schoolteacher with real life is surely an appealing quality.

A secnd feature of schoolteaching I want to discuss is its explicit concern with the activities of teaching and learning. This is an obvious feature, and it may look like an uninteresting one. But I think that it is not only interesting but also an appealing part of the job of a schoolteacher. In its broadest sense, teaching occurs in (to put it roughly) any exchange between two or more people in which one or more of those people use their faculties to enhance the faculties of one or more of the other people. In this sense of teaching, the exchange may be explicit or implicit; the method of transferring expertise may vary widely; and the faculties enhanced may also vary widely. And, in this sense of the word, teaching is ubiquitous in human life, vital to human life, and instructive about human life. Only the third of those qualities needs clarification here, I think. What makes teaching “instructive about human life” is that any act of teaching brings into view many aspects of human life that are interesting to humans. I do not mean just that teachers teach things that are interesting to humans, like Philosophy and how to ride a bike. I mean that when we teach we perform an act of communication, an act of empathy, an act of self-discovery and of self-assertion, perhaps of love; and that when we learn we perform all of these acts plus an act of humility; and the success or failure of these acts is intimately tied up with the success or failure of the acts of teaching and learning. (I do not have the space to justify or clarify these claims here: I do not want them to be platitudes, however, and it would be easy for them to become platitudes; so I welcome any objections to them.)

Of course, the three qualities of teaching just mentioned would be not make schoolteaching appealing unless schoolteaching was a good way of coming to know about teaching. Which means that, for that appeal to obtain, “teaching” in the sense defined above must be something that schoolteachers perform; and partaking in that sort of teaching must be a good way of coming to know about it. Both conjuncts are sufficiently true, I think, for my claim to hold. Perhaps teaching in schools is a fairly emaciated sort of teaching, quite unlike the teaching that goes on between, say, a master and an apprentice, or between a parent and a child. But perhaps it need not be that way. And perhaps some schoolteachers do not take much interest in the human concerns that are brought to the surface by teaching. But if they did take such an interest, perhaps they would find that teaching did bring many interesting concerns into their view. I have put a lot of “perhaps”’s in the last few sentences. This is mainly because I have not had much experience of schoolteaching myself: I would really look forward to getting a response to this paragraph from people who do have such experience. Even without those responses, however, I think that I have said enough in this and the previous paragraph to shed some light on a feature of schoolteaching that gives it genuine appeal.

At the start of this essay I said that I would talk about some appealing features of schoolteaching, and that those features would be connected with what I called the “go-between” quality of the profession. I have left this notion of a “go-between” quality in the background so far: now it is time to bring it into clearer view. I think it is clear how this go-between quality is tied up with two of the other qualities I have just discussed: the quality of mixing together the theoretical and the practical; and the quality of being concerned explicitly with teaching and learning. It is not so clear how the next quality is so tied up, and perhaps this next quality really is a bit out-of-place in this essay. However, this quality, namely the closeness of teaching to philosophy, is worth putting down for the reason that this a philosophical blog.

Because this is a philosophical blog, it is fairly safe to assume that most readers will that philosophy has a kind of grandeur about it, an association with things of a high order, with things that are both refined and of deep concern to all adults. Hence it is fairly safe to assume that schoolteaching would brighten in the eyes of those readers if it were somehow shown to be closely linked with philosophy. Now, I am not sure just how strong that linkage is; but I think it is strong enough to be worth noting. I will note a historical and an ahistorical linkage. The historical linkage is that the doings of Socrates seem to resemble the doings of the ideal schoolteacher: informal but rigorous, politically and socially aware, spontaneous, sincere, voluntary, good at midwifery.

Now, are the qualities that made Socrates an admirable teacher also the qualities that made him a widely admired philosopher? Perhaps. The thought gains plausibility when one considers that most schoolteaching shares with most philosophy a commitment to a particular sort of human betterment: a broad, intellect-based, ethically-directed sort of human betterment. And perhaps this ahistorical link fits in neatly with the ahistorical link: perhaps the doings of Socrates and the doings of the ideal schoolteacher are similar because both of those fictions are committed to the same goal. I will leave the suggestion hanging, and hope that other people grab hold of it, either by saying whether it is right or wrong and explaining why it is so, or by becoming teachers as well as philosophers.

As mentioned at the start of this post, it is more a polemic than a philosophical essay. My intention was not to argue that schoolteaching is an admirable profession, or that it has great value to society. Rather, I wanted to describe some ways in which schoolteaching might be attractive to people. The post becomes a polemic because of this in the sense that it becomes an attempt to appeal to people’s tastes rather than to their morals. If it is true that schoolteaching is an attractive profession, it does not follow that people are morally obliged to become schoolteachers. And, if one or two people feel rightly that schoolteaching is attractive to them, it does not follow that all people who feel otherwise are wrong. I have left out a number of aspects of schoolteaching that might lead people to take it up: that it means working with children, that it means having a relatively large number of holidays etc. My hope is that the aspects I have included are more likely than all the others to appeal to the sort of people who read this blog.

Of course, even though not all ethical acts are attractive, some people may find some acts attractive precisely because they are ethical. So perhaps some people will be attracted to schoolteaching if I were to convince them that schools were currently in a state of grievous disrepair, and that to ensure the wellbeing of present and future society the education system needed the urgent attention of many well-trained thinkers. And even if few people were susceptible to that form of persuasion, it would still be worth giving an account of that grievous disrepair, supposing that schools were in such a state: it would be a first step towards making things better. I don’t think the state of schools is quite that bad. But still it is worth giving an account of some problems that some schools do seem to have at the moment: and that is what I want to do in the next post of this series.

In the meantime, I would be interested to read any responses that teachers have to all of the above. Do the supposed attractions of schoolteaching, described above, pull any weight in the gritty world of secondary schools? Are there other attractions that are more hardy? As to the other person who has read this essay right through to the end, do you have anything to add to it, or object to? Much obliged.


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