Philosophy of the Teacher

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” (Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk To Freedom)

“Thoughts wait to be woken one day by the memory of what has been missed, and to be transformed into teaching” (TW Adorno, Minima Moralia, para. 50)


Out and back

(thanks to Jess Wood, artist, for permission to use The Broken Middle – Moses;

The teacher – and this includes the very best teachers – can be seen partly as an artist. This artist may well be gifted in creating new places for students to gain experience, and new ways to get there. These paths may be aesthetic, political, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, empirical and even mystical. But while the job of the artist ends with this experience, more is asked of the teacher.

The teacher cannot only be an artist. True, the job of the teacher is to inspire the student to take the paths to these new places, and to learn in the experience of doing so. The good teacher can inspire the horse to travel further to the watering hole than it might wish. In doing so, the teacher will also probably have done enough to encourage the horse to drink.

But the question arises, then, what is the job of the teacher when the path has been taken and the horse has drunk from the watering hole? This is the part of teaching that is most often forgotten, and is what marks the teacher out from the artist. The really good teachers are those who can not only lead the student to the new places, but also know how to lead both student and teacher back again, seeking to understand the difference that this path, or this experience, has made to both of them.

Thus, it is not only the job of the teacher to create new spaces, or even new paths. It is the job of the teacher also to try to understand what they mean. The teacher’s responsibility is to lead the student back and forth between experience and meaning. The job is not only one of creation, but also one of recollection. Teachers need to ensure they know the way home, no matter how far they travel with their students, even if when each time they arrive home they find it, and they, are not the same as when they left.

When the student’s learning between experience and meaning is also a learning in and of experience and meaning for the teacher, this is what is meant by the philosophy of the teacher.


Questioning as an end in and for itself

But, inspiring learning in students is dangerous, and should not be underestimated.

Soren Kierkegaard, in considering the merits or otherwise of Socrates, noted that a teacher can ask questions with two intentions in mind. One can ask questions that intend answers, and one can ask questions that intend no answer. The young Kierkegaard was sceptical of the second pedagogy, and portrayed Socrates as an intriguer and a seducer of young minds, attracting them with his skills in the elenchus, and therein robbing them of any and all certainties that they may have had in their lives.

He then deserted them, offering no further help or guidance, moving off instead to seek fresh new minds to seduce. Kierkegaard sees this Socratic practice as the teacher using a dialectical vacuum pump to suck out all certainty and all knowledge from his students, leaving them without foundations about how to live or think.

But the philosophers Kant and Hegel have advanced this theory of Socratic teaching. They have shown that the foundation that is destroyed by Socrates, or by the question, has its own truth in the consciousness of the thinker. Here is the rationale for the claim that education and learning are ends in themselves, and valuable in their own right.

In modern Liberal Arts we will teach students to question; and we will see them struggle; but then we will search for the ways in which they express this struggle, and it is different for each student. But in each struggle each student is also expressing his or her humanity. We listen for this humanity and then try to suggest authors who are also speaking about this humanity and this struggle in ways that will speak to each particular student.


Why study?

In this work with the student, no text is off limits as too difficult. If it has been written, we can understand it. The key to getting undergraduates to read, indeed to study these difficult texts is this: help the students to find a reason to read, a reason to want to read, that is more powerful than just because we say they have to.

This comes about through arousing a curiosity to which a text will speak directly. And the curiosity is aroused by asking students the right questions for them. Then they read because they want to, or more strongly because they need to, rather than because they have been told to. Put another way, finding in them the reason to read comes from touching the soul, touching their humanity and finding the ways in which they express it. The question of the soul is inevitably linked to the desire for a purpose in life. No further motivation, (or indeed, innovative pedagogical strategy) is required.

But in serving the incompleteness of the student, the real struggle to be a good enough teacher comes to the fore. The teacher must keep reading and researching in order to be as comprehensive a resource for the student as possible. The teacher cannot be a resource for learning unless the teacher, too, is continually learning. Research and teaching are two sides of the one coin of education. The teacher reads in order to be able to respond to a greater number of student struggles. But she also writes because she must deepen her own humanity. In writing and in research, then, the teacher broadens and deepens her responses to her students, as to herself.

There is a further element to this philosophy of the teacher. What is it that keeps the teacher in pursuit of deeper understanding? If it is for the status that comes with publishing, or for the vanity of reputation, or even for the reward of national recognition, then this is only a corruption of the teacher/student relationship in the philosophy of the teacher. If it is from fear of being asked something by a student that the teacher does not know the answer to, this is the path to madness. The teacher never knows enough.

But this incompleteness is not an excuse for ‘winging it’ – what a disgusting phrase and concept that is – for knowing that we don’t know is one of the most valuable lessons that any teacher can learn. Learning how to teach from within this difficulty is where the integrity of the teacher is to be found or not. The reason for the pursuit of understanding by teachers is to deepen, and not to avoid, her own sense of incompleteness.


Return of the Teacher

It is widely recognised that what follows from this in Western thought at this moment in its social and political history is the idea that the teacher has no legitimacy to ‘teach’. It is from this fear of authority without legitimacy, this fear of imperialism, this fear of colonialism of the student by the teacher, that ‘teachers’ have retreated to the role that is the ‘facilitator’. But the one thing that the facilitator fears most of all is being the teacher, or being caught teaching. In modern Liberal Arts we will not facilitate, believing that this simply avoids the difficulties that give teaching its substance, and which give the teacher sight of her own soul.

And this is the word, the concept, the reality, that is currently missing most from talk about teaching – the soul. The soul in the Western tradition has always been the site of difficulty. It is known in those places where the principled life becomes a personal and human dilemma; where the inner and the outer are in conflict; where there seems to be no resolution to problems regardless of the choices open to us; where sadness becomes the condition of the individual.



And how sadness is misunderstood in education. Sadness is part of teaching. The teacher’s sadness is in knowing that getting her students to think about things, about serious things, will make life more difficult for them. The sadness of the teacher is to know that ignorance is not bliss, but that understanding isn’t bliss either. And the sadness of the teacher is to know that if she has done her job properly, then the result will be that her students must leave her.

To make the teacher redundant to her students, this is the soul of the profession. And this leads to another sadness. The teacher works with students, and can see their progress over the years, but the teacher is rarely fortunate enough to see the long term effects of her teaching which blossom long after the student has gone to pastures new. In this sense, the sadness of the teacher is also an act of faith, faith that the work put in will bear fruit in a future that the teacher will not be involved with. This is faith in the immortality not of the teacher, but of education. Simone Weil says of the teacher that ‘even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light which is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.’

It is the difficulty of Socratic education, mediated now by the sadness that educates the soul, which constitutes a modern social, political and spiritual philosophy of the teacher. It is as much to be found in Socrates as Augustine, and as much in Kant and Hegel as in Dostoevsky and Rowan Williams. This is the continuing education of the identity of the teacher in modern society.



Many wonder if this philosophy of the teacher is too undemocratic. The answer to this charge comes from within the philosophy of the teacher. One serves democracy by teaching freedom from within the struggles involved in learning about freedom. And here we return to the Socratic dialectic. Education means losing past certainties to present doubts. This cannot be engaged with fully unless the loss is real, and felt, and known. This is part of the deepening of the thinking of both teacher and student alike, as it is in the examination that freedom must consistently undertake of itself . Democracy is not easy. That is why it is inseparable from education, and why and how it is served by the philosophy of the teacher. Freedom is to learn.