I believe in the possibility of education. Since I teach philosophy at a small Catholic liberal arts college, you may find it odd that I don’t just say I believe in education, period. That’s because I’ve come to believe, following Socrates, the psychologist Carl Rogers, and even Saint Augustine, that nobody teaches anybody anything (of real value).
I believe in the _possibility_ of education. I can’t educate my students. They’ve got to educate themselves. Basic skills can be taught, socialization can and should be done—but then again, how do you make people buy into it, accept and live out the good, but also help correct the problem areas? All of those more important steps take free choice, and I can’t do that for my students. I can’t make them, in any sense of that phrase.
I believe in the possibility of _education_. It takes risk and responsibility, but real change can happen. People can seek and find some insight or clarity in their lives. They can come to decisions on what really matters to them, on how they are connected to the important ones around them—a roommate, an aging parent, a piece of land, God. Or they can step back, if only for a moment, and see themselves and elements of our common existence as if for the first time.
Nobody teaches anybody anything (of real value). But learning can occur. A teaching mentor of mine once asked what I really wanted to happen in the classroom. I said, “Discussion”—real dialogue, real investigation of the big questions in life, real searching. And my mentor, who does Zen meditation, said to me, “Then stop preparing for class.”
So I did for a while. The point was trust—trusting my students enough to let them take the lead sometimes, for me not always to front-load a particular discussion with my own agenda. Do I know more philosophy than they do? My Ph.D. says I do. But that’s not always the point, even in a philosophy classroom. Education is.
I do prepare for class, most of the time. We have a syllabus to get through—on bioethics, or logic, or the history of Western philosophy—and usually there’s too much in it. But sometimes we get beyond that, and for a seemingly timeless interval we really talk to each other, and listen. It could be about 9/11. Or the Stoic philosopher Epictetus’s description of life as a banquet: take a bit and pass it on; when the dish moves on, do not detain it. Or Martin Buber’s contrast between the realms of I-It and I-Thou. We consider the questions themselves, because we can, and because we are together. And education becomes possible.
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