Teaching to Learn
The winter semester begins peacefully. When students return in the fall, they arrive all at once, loud and energetic as they reclaim a campus left to faculty and staff back in May. But in January, they slip back into town quietly, perhaps less glad to be here than they were in August. Perhaps less energetic too, fattened up nicely from holiday feasts. The cold and darkness of winter slows them down, and the season for feasts gives way to the season for fasts. It is a good time to focus on one’s studies. It is also a good time to focus on one’s teaching, as I have been doing lately. There is an endless supply of books written by teachers for teachers about teaching. This may be because—as anyone who spends much time in the classroom quickly recognizes—teaching is a mysterious craft. I never know when the best class sessions are going to happen. When they do happen, I’m never certain exactly why. Was it my carefully chosen reading assignment? My well crafted lecture? My discussion questions? Most likely, it wasn’t any of those things. I’ve concluded that no matter what I do, a large part of what makes my classes go well on any given day is beyond my control. Did the students do the reading? Did the basketball game go into overtime and keep them from the library? Did they get any sleep last night? Still, I read some of the teaching books, hoping for insights. One that I looked at recently was Patrick Allitt’s I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student (Penn, 2004). The title tells you most of what you need to know about Allitt’s pedagogy. He is the teacher, and his students are not allowed to forget it. They are in his class to learn from him, not from each other. Allitt seems almost obsessed with maintaining authority, rules, and proper distance. From his students, he wants no excuses, no hats in class, and absolutely no information about their personal lives. He also comes off as a brilliant, engaging, and creative teacher, someone I would have loved to take a class from, but I don’t believe that his authoritarian approach is what makes him a good teacher. Although I respect (even envy) the control that Allitt maintains over his classes, the more I read of his book, the more I became convinced that his rules and regulations contribute far more to simplifying his teaching than to facilitating his students’ learning.
Experience has taught me that I need to enforce deadlines, hold students accountable, and watch for inappropriate classroom behavior. When I fail to do those things, my job gets much more complicated than it needs to be. I already have enough work to do without allowing students to create more for me. At the same time, I don’t believe that any student ever learned anything simply because I graded him down on a late paper. At least, nothing other than to get his papers done by the due date next time— which is something, but that is not the kind of teaching that excites me.
In something else I read recently, I found more valuable insights about the craft of teaching.
For who is so foolishly curious that he sends his son to school to learn what the teacher thinks? But when they have explained, through words, all those sciences that they profess to teach, even the sciences of wisdom and virtue, then those called students consider within themselves whether the truth was spoken, looking, in fact, at that truth within them to the extent they are able. It is then that they learn, and when they find, within themselves, that the truth has been spoken, they give praise.
Augustine wrote those lines in a dialogue called “On the Teacher” (included in Mark Schwehn’s Everyone a Teacher, Notre Dame, 2000). These are words that will keep a teacher humble. Teachers can be wise and learned and teach the truth, and it might not matter at all. All our efforts will come to naught unless our students take the next step and “consider within themselves whether the truth was spoken.” That moment—the moment when a student considers what we have said, compares it to what she already knows or believes, and decides whether or not to accept it as true—is when learning occurs. Even when they reject what we have taught, students learn, and they learn mostly because of their own efforts.
Most teachers at least would assent to Augustine’s point, but I’m not sure we always teach that way. I have no doubt that I usually walk into my classroom with expectations far too high about what my students will learn during that single hour of their day. I constantly have to remind myself that my job is not to convey large quantities of information to my students but to give them both the tools and the motivation to learn more on their own.
Many students, I suspect, would reject Augustine’s argument outright. Many, if not most, students today don’t go to college seeking truth of the sort Augustine had in mind. They go to college seeking credentials that will get them the job they want, and they expect teachers to help them get that job. This attitude can make them very passive about their role in their own education. They expect to receive some sort of knowledge—hopefully “useful” knowledge, and in their opinion, a good teacher is one who finds clever ways to pass this knowledge on to them. Many students actually tell me that they prefer traditional lectures to class discussion, because they agree with Allitt that they aren’t in class to learn from the other students but from the professors.
Augustine’s words serve as a reminder to both teachers and students who think like that. Teachers must remember that what they teach is not the most important part of their students’ education; students must recognize that unless they are actively engaged in their own education, they are not going to learn much. As teachers we can help our students to read, to think, and to search for the truth, but we cannot give it to them.
But is Augustine’s understanding of education still relevant in today’s academy of modern sciences, pre-professional programs, and credential seekers? It makes me cautious when Augustine goes on to say that the truth within our students—the truth against which my words are to be measured—is a truth taught to them by Christ, “who is said to dwell in the innermost man.” Augustine reminds us that God is the only teacher of truth.
Most contemporary academics are not accustomed to thinking of their teaching in quite those terms. I am a political scientist, not a pastor or priest. I believe that what I teach is true, but I doubt that my courses often lead students directly to “Truth”—or at least the kind of truth that Augustine meant. Most of the things that I teach about— nations, constitutions, ideologies—are transient. They come and they go. I may suggest that some of the things we talk about in class—for example justice and virtue—are more lasting and not so contingent on place and time, but my goal is not to make students believe one thing or another about such ideas. My hope is that taking my class will lead students to become thoughtful and articulate about this particular forum of human knowledge, and that they will become accustomed to doing what Augustine says they must do, to considering within themselves whether the truth is spoken.
The ultimate goal of teaching in any discipline—humanities, social science, professional—is not to convey a particular set of facts, concepts, or propositions. It should be to help students learn how to look within themselves and use their God-given rational abilities to sort through everything they are taught and everything that they experience in their lives. In any class in any discipline, good teachers do this. They teach their students to think, to examine their world and themselves with honesty and clarity, to consider whether what they believe is really true.
It is worth remembering this now, because the present season is more than just a good time to be focused on our studies. This season of fasts is a time for us all to examine ourselves and our beliefs with honesty, to simplify our lives so that we can reflect with clarity. Good teachers help their students learn how to do this, and, when we do, we help them learn about things far more important that anything we teach inside our classrooms.