Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Credo

The following "CREDO" was published in Education & Anarchy (2001), pp. 95-8.

And so it is with this in mind that I would conclude this chapter with a Credo, couched in terms of encouragement to all of us who take to heart the implications and consequences of just such a call to thinking, one linked to an approach to teaching that seeks to let learn. It is appropriately titled insofar as a college student who attended one of my "Visiting Lectures" wrote on her exit-slip: "you remind me of my minister because you speak with such enthusiasm and passion on the topic"; and another, "you made me start to care." Credo literally means "I believe." As a literary form, a Credo records a set of beliefs, which clarifies where you stand, and thus how you intend to carry yourself in the world--especially as you relate to others.

III. CREDO
I believe that the purpose of teaching is to let learning happen. Sometimes this means just getting out of the way and keeping your opinions to yourself, and other times it means intervening in decisive ways to make clear to students your seasoned, critical judgments about the material being studied. I take Plutarch at his word that we are all capable of making progress in virtue and capable of detecting signs of our approach toward it.

It is our duty to compare our present emotions with their former selves and with one another, and thus determine differences. We must compare them with their former selves, to see whether the desires and fears and angry passions which we experience today are less intense than they used to be, inasmuch as we, by means of reason, are rapidly getting rid of the cause that kindles and inflames them; and we must compare them with one another, to see whether now we are more inclined to feel shame than fear, to be emulous rather than envious, more eager for good repute than for money (Plutarch, 1927/1986: 445, 447).

I believe it is always preferable to be direct and honest with and about oneself. This is especially true for teachers. How else could we be trusted to work with those who have come to us in earnest that we might help them shape their ideas and earn their diplomas, and over whom we exercise some degree of authority whether in the form of grades or status or simply experience? And so, my Credo is simple — and it can be yours too, in part or in whole.

I believe that remarkable works from the world's great traditions can tell us useful things about how others have viewed and expressed what it means to be better, more ennobled, humans; and, further, that we stand to learn a great deal from those accounts. Whatever our areas of specialization, it is our task to go to the material we plan to teach — whether a differential equation, Javanese harmonics, toplogical functions, Qur'an hermeneutics, the Periodic Table of Elements, the AIDS quilt project, Korean printmaking, political economic formulas, Dante's Divine Comedy, Buddhist monastic history, or van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles. It is our further task to enter it, and to become a part of it. Then and only then can we allow it to become an abiding part of ourselves. It is in such moments of communion and transfiguration that, I believe, what we seek to teach comes alive and continues to live a renewed life in and through us. We give it life, even as it animates us.

I believe those who profess to be teachers must dedicate their lives to the pursuit of learning, and must think constantly and deeply about what it means to be a teacher. A teacher is someone who has made a deliberate decision to be dedicated to learning and then to share what she or he has learned and continues to learn — while teaching. I have found a maxim that expresses this well: "cum docimus, discimus" [we learn as we teach]. Another motto by which I live and learn, closely related to the first, is "discere vivendo" [to learn through living].

I believe that, in addition to honoring our students, we have obligations to the books and concepts and axioms and facts that we teach as well as to the community within which we happen to be teaching and (it is to be hoped) learning. And yet, above all, I believe an educator should put his or her students first, and in this way contributes meaningfully to the Commonwealth of Learning. It is this that enables our lessons, over time, to circulate and reverberate honorably and amply in the communities of which our students are a part. This we do without any thought of personal advancement or private gain. There is no reward like no reward — as one teacher of old put it so eloquently if cryptically.

I believe a teacher is someone who makes an on-going effort to listen to what students are saying, to clue in to how they learn and to act on this appropriately. No matter what or how we teach, it becomes our responsibility to help students learn enough to be able to pose appropriately prior questions; namely, those fundamental questions upon which the very ground of what they think they know is based. This means that teachers have a nearly sacred trust and duty where their students are concerned. Bertrand Russell said it well in his essay on "Freedom Versus Authority in Education": "No one is fit to educate unless he feels each pupil an end in himself, with his own rights and his own personality, not merely a piece in a jig-saw puzzle, or a soldier in a regiment, or a citizen in a State. Reverence for human personality is the beginning of wisdom, in every social question, but above all in education" (Russell, 1929/1977: 152).

I believe that no matter what class or what topic I might happen to be teaching, everything I do should be geared toward helping students see what they will be able to do with what they have been studying. Often for me this takes the form of having the students write critically or creatively (and often both at the same time) about what they have been studying, and at times to write in imitation of the book they have been reading (for example, to insert "three lost stanzas, newly recovered" in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene). But this is just a preliminary step. I believe further that every teacher is obliged to know in advance and to be able to state clearly what he or she wants the students to be able to do with the content of every lesson that is taught. It is in this respect that the real job of a teacher is to discover ways of helping students gain confidence and competence in learning how to learn what they need to know so that, along the way, they can begin to take a more active, reflective, and responsible role in their learning.

I believe the ultimate role of the teacher is to be there for one's students as they "get" a particular lesson or book, and then seek to move beyond the mere content of the instruction toward the more far-reaching implications and underlying principles. This is as true when I train fencers to riposte as it is when I show writers how to use the semi-colon. To be sure, the acquisition and mastery of basic skills proper to each discipline is vital to working effectively within that area of investigation. Still, once these basics are presented and "learned," I labor to help my students discover within themselves their own characteristic excellence; to discover for themselves how these basis skills can help them draw out, buttress, and build on their native abilities and intellectual preferences. I strive to enable them to recognize their strengths so as to cultivate them and then apply what they have learned to other areas of study and activities in the world. Sometimes this means taking the time to get to know how each of them learns. To do this honestly and with integrity a teacher must strive to respect the worth and dignity of every student--and often mark up a lot of homework assignments. Rather than subscribe to the doctrine of "student management" (which maintains that any time given to students is time away from your own, "more important," work), an educator must take seriously the charge implied in the etymology of the word education, to lead, (or, more accurately still, to draw out).

I believe it is our challenge and our reward, as educators, to lead our students out of and away from ignorance and toward a path most appropriate for their seeking a heart of wisdom and subsequently acting nobly in the world. The essence of my teaching, and what I hope to instill in each of my students (even as I strive to learn it anew each time I put it to the test), is summed up well by Montaigne in his essay "On Experience":

To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building are only little appendages and props, at most (Montaigne, III.13: 851f.).