What Philosophy Owes Society IV: Better Teachers

Political discourse is a swamp of poor arguments and miseducation. Dialogue between those who disagree is becoming impossible. A particular segment of the political world is actively undermining the concept of truth. The Republican party knows that it can lie repeatedly to the country with impunity. More and more issues are being folded into the sphere of partisan tribalism (for example, the morality of pedophilia). Whether about taxes, voting, race, or healthcare, the current GOP is confident that it can treat citizens like they’re stupid. November 2016 was confirmation that the strategy is frighteningly effective.  

What do we do in the face of these facts? What hope is there?

The answer always and unavoidably involves education. There is a long tradition that recognizes the importance of education in democracy, most notably John Dewey. “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” The quote is spuriously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but who can disagree with the sentiment? At bottom, Plato’s dialogue about politics is about education.

In the previous post of this series I said that the most important way philosophers can meet their obligations to society is through ‘public philosophy’. That is wrong. I have realized that the philosopher’s activity that impacts the most people is teaching. (Perhaps I could defend myself by claiming that all teaching is public philosophy, but I don’t want to quibble with definitions. Teaching deserves focused discussion.) We—those who teach philosophy to students, usually in classrooms—must come to view good teaching as an essential feature of a healthy politics. All teaching is political, whether in content or in the power dynamics inherent in pedagogy (and neither is independent of the other). We need to “break through collective academic denial and acknowledge that the education most of us had received and were giving was not and is never politically neutral,” bell hooks says in Teaching to Transgress. There is no avoiding politics in the classroom. Even if your research does not face the public, you face the public when you teach. What do we do with that opportunity?

It is not radical to claim that philosophers must become better teachers. Everyone would say this—though the level of sincerity varies. My idea instead is that we too often ignore a fundamental issue in discussions about what makes good teaching good.

I want to focus on the link between being a good teacher and being a good person.

When I think about the influential philosophy teachers I had, it wasn’t their exceptional philosophical skill that stands out. They shared that with the teachers who didn’t help me. What stands out is their care, compassion, and generosity. They had an uncanny ability to make me feel like they wanted to help me and that my ideas were worthwhile. Good teachers demonstrate virtue.

Consider how David Carr begins an insightful article on character and teaching:

Teaching seems to be the sort of occupation in which professional effectiveness is greatly enhanced by the possession and exercise of personal qualities and practical dispositions that are not entirely (if at all) reducible to academic knowledge or technical skills. Indeed, it is often observed that we remember teachers more for the kinds of persons that they were than for anything they may have.

And Elizabeth Campbell:

How often have we heard students, colleagues, research participants, friends, family members, public figures, and others recall former teachers who left an imprint on their lives? Those who stand out in their memories, for better or worse, are often characterized in moral and ethical terms related to being kind and giving or cruel and dehumanizing. The recollection of how they have been treated, and encouraged to flourish or not, frequently tends to overwhelm other remembrances of their school days.

There is no doubt that students remember the respect or disrespect their teachers showed them. My point is different. Being a good teacher is more than being remembered well by students. Quality teaching requires good character not because we want role models in classrooms or because teachers teach morality, directly or indirectly. Instead, character or virtue is necessary for teaching material well in the first place. The moral development of teachers is central to pedagogy.

It is rare that we place the burden of becoming better people onto teachers. That must change. Good philosophy teachers are not good because they received extensive training. They didn’t. They are good because they cared to become good. My teachers had something in them that they didn’t receive in training sessions or a pedagogy seminar. Without that foundation, making adjustments to our teaching techniques will have limited effect. There is a difference between learning your students’ names because that is what good teachers do and learning their names because you want to know your students.

For hooks, “Teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” This is key. But the more one thinks about what the moral development of teachers would look like, the more hopeless it feels. If good teaching requires good character, we are left with no tangible steps forward (and an off-putting indictment of our character). Nevertheless, approaches to pedagogy that do not confront the fundamental problem will not generate lasting systemic solutions. If practical pedagogical techniques are implemented by teachers who struggle to show care and compassion for students, they will fall flat. Plus, teachers are adults with established characters and personalities. How exactly do we go about changing them? How much labor will the transformation require from teachers and facilitators?

On both the practical and conceptual level, there is no workable answer. So we tend not to think about it. And in a great many cases, teaching simply isn’t that important to teachers. As long as the professor shows up, that is good enough. Teaching takes place in the gaps between the paramount research.  

So what am I calling for? Perhaps departments should simply shift priorities: emphasize teaching quality above heavy-hitting scholarship. That is a good start, and some schools do some of this already, but the issue isn’t so straightforward. hooks is calling for something more fundamental: we need a focus on spiritual well-being. Academia sure could use it. And in light of our need for self-actualization, we should reexamine what we mean by ‘quality teaching’ in the first place.

It is difficult to imagine what a focus on moral development would look like. The demands of producing ‘quality’ scholarship often force on people a lifestyle that does not promote well-being. Academic philosophy training requires seclusion and an obsession over topics few people think about. (In fact, the choice of topic itself, and how we make the choice, often illustrates moral failure.) It means not being able to share your work in a meaningful way with loved ones. Not everyone has the disposition for that life (and the disposition is gendered and racialized in important ways). It is unsurprising that graduate school puts a strain on one’s mental health. So if quality teaching requires spiritual well-being, the training to acquire a teaching position undermines one’s ability to teach well. To get the job we lose the ability to do the job. How can we generate better teachers while the culture of graduate school remains the same?

There are sociological factors as well. For those who occupy the most envied places in academia, the emphasis is on perceived mastery of recondite academic material, not on fitness to meet the needs of students. The quality of the person is secondary to the quality of their scholarship. It is a good general rule that as the prestige of the institution increases, the value placed on quality teaching decreases. If your research is good, the teaching quality doesn’t really matter. As long as you at least do some teaching, decent or awful, you’ll be fine. Improving as a teacher is supererogatory. But let’s be honest: we just don’t have the time. Students should be happy to be in presence of such an intellectual powerhouse, right?

When these are the priorities, we should not be surprised when we discover that powerful figures in the field have been harassing those with less power for years. But when your work is cited a lot, they let you do it.

Quality teaching requires vulnerability, honesty, and constructing an environment in which students feel like their insights and experience are worth considering. Graduate school, however, the environment that grows and shapes philosophy teachers, is a sharp contrast. It is ‘knowledge theater’ in which we learn to play a part. We pick up the persona: constant posturing of intelligence with endlessly qualified questions and comments (so as to appear “rigorous,” whatever that means), hesitance to share one’s own views, the currency of namedrops, and the reluctance to admit ignorance. We learn the part and then stress that someone will look under the disguise to see who we truly are.  

Graduate school success involves attaining the endorsement of powerful individuals, which all too frequently takes the form of an unequal recognition game (the ‘guru/sycophant’ dialectic). This attitude is inverted and duplicated in the classroom. Graduate students or new teachers, so used to giving recognition to those more powerful, jump at the chance to be viewed as the guru. The psychological deficiencies manifested in sycophancy and imposter syndrome are compensated by reflecting the same problematic power relations onto someone at the bottom of another guru/sycophant relationship.

hooks is right that teachers should “empower students.” But if the teacher’s position is predicated on power, they cannot empower students too much. They would be risking their own positions. As long as teaching takes place in an environment constructed through power, how can teaching be about empowering others? Power is a limited resource.

This goes towards explaining why a theme in the social life of graduate school and among professors is the mockery of undergraduates’ abilities. Why would teachers belittle their students to other teachers? Could it stem from a need for intellectual validation?

The idea is that conversations about improving teaching cannot take place apart from a conversation about the politics of academia. This is not only because becoming an academic can be spiritually damaging, but because the task of teaching fits into a broader academic culture, one that does not prioritize teaching done by virtuous people.

There is something deeply backwards about the profession. The people whose career is called ‘professional philosopher’ train for years, and yet almost none of their training is in the most public part of their job—the part that will help to determine the health of their field, and the whole of society, into the future. Teaching skill comes about mostly through trial and error, if it comes about at all. But even if philosophy were to change, and there was a reevaluation of values and a demanding training protocol for good teaching, it would either need to start by instilling a virtuous character in the teachers or presuppose such a character.

There are advantages to placing virtue at the center of pedagogy. Others have written on this. Richard Osguthorpe says, “we want teachers of good disposition and moral character because we want these virtues of character to inform the aims that teachers put forward for the multifarious decisions they make both in planning and in carrying out those plans in practice.” Carr says, “good teachers should want to cultivate a range of values and virtues that are conducive to positive and productive relations with pupils—though they will pursue these not because they are so productive, but for their own sake.”

The common assumption is that improved teaching is about learning some easily implemented techniques, not about personal development. Given this approach—which is born out of a troubling academic culture—we should not be surprised to see the effects of the crisis of critical thinking all around us. A powerful mass of voters is behaving how an undergraduate would if they were to find teachers mocking their intellectual abilities.

The whole picture of what philosophy owes society therefore comes into view. Personal and systematic self-actualization is what philosophy needs most of all. Without it, either philosophy will fail to see the obligations it has or be ineffective in meeting them. It will proclaim anti-intellectualism out of despondency and self-importance. It will disdain those attempting to do philosophy in public. It will cling resolutely to the status quo or comfortable variations of it. What society needs from philosophy is courage, a central virtue in the just individual and state, not more comfortable irrelevance.Orange  

Part I       Part II        Part III

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