An intellectual historian reflects on the vocation of teaching.

By Wilfred M. McClay

There are many things that the world does not understand about teaching. One of them is this: those of us who do it, particularly primary and secondary teachers, are granted precious little time to step back and reflect together on the meaning of what it is we are doing — to take stock of what we are doing well, and what we need to do better. No profession needs it more, but there just never seems to be enough time for it. The demands of this job are voracious; they just keep coming at you, as incessant as the waves of the ocean, but far less majestic.

Indeed, there are times of year when the waves of demands begin to feel more like the incoming fire of some diabolical Space Invaders game that has somehow taken possession of your life. The challenges keep coming at you, keep multiplying and changing their shape and color and velocity and weaponry, at times lording it over every spare moment of every day. It seems to require all your energy just to scramble to do the things that have to be done, and then collapse in a heap. You can easily lose perspective, become discouraged. Creativity, excitement, discovery, experimentation, curricular innovation, bold new ideas — all those great aspirations become endlessly deferred dreams, to be indulged, if ever, only “when things slow down.”

Hence it is all the more imperative to carve out time for drawing back and reflecting on the proper objectives of teachers and teaching, both of which are worth thinking about more deeply. The list of things that we hope for from education is a mile long, and it would exhaust us all to try to cover them all. I want to discuss only three, and all three are either classical or Christian in their origins.

The first comes from Plato, and specifically from Plato’s great dialogue called the Republic, which has supplied our civilization with one of its most imperishable parables of education: the Allegory of the Cave. You all know the story. It is a strange, even weird, tale of a benighted race of people who have been compelled since birth to see shadowy images projected upon a wall as if they were the only real things in existence. Without something or someone intervening, they would never know that reality was otherwise. But when these people are released from their bondage and brought into the blinding light of day, they at last are able to see things as they really are. And in emerging into the light, they are also being ushered into a public world, a common world, a shared world, the world that they share in common with other human beings.

Plato’s great allegorical image of liberation remains at the core of education, even if it does not constitute the whole of it. Before we can do anything truly magnificent and lasting, in art or craft or love, we too must be drawn out of our various caves. We must enlarge our sense of the universe, extend the range of our human sympathies, learn what came before us, and weave all this knowledge into the fabric of a rich and various moral imagination. Needless to say, too, we must be liberated from the sirens of propaganda, or the enchantments of virtual experience, before we can accomplish anything worthwhile, and bringing about that liberation in the minds of our students will be a greater and greater part of the task of teachers in the years ahead. No one in Plato’s story is able to free himself from the cave by his own powers.

One does not have to believe that we are inhabiting a soft-core version of The Matrix to believe that an unhealthy proportion of our experience has come to be mediated by the artificial instruments we use to apprehend the world. Students spend too much of their lives in the darkness of virtual caves. Such a tendency carries with it great dangers.

That brings me to the second consideration: teachers need to be guided by the admonition that Paul offers at the end of his epistle to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (4:8).

There is a whole philosophy of education embedded in these words, and it is to some extent countercultural.  It is very much at odds with the belief that no one can really know for sure what is true, pure, and just — that it is a strictly individual judgment, and that it therefore would be an arrogant imposition of one’s values or tastes to assume otherwise. Therefore the only really fair and honest way to educate young people is to “expose” them to many things, as many things as possible, respect their “feelings,” and leave it to them to sort it all out.

It is an approach to education that appears on the surface to be generous and liberating, but is in fact far from being either, for it is an approach in which liberality is really only a veil for its lack of conviction, and for its indifference to the fate of the very ones consigned to its care. It is not indifference to students’ physical fates, of which we are now perhaps excessively solicitous, with our growing mania for health and safety, but indifference to their intellectual and spiritual fates, about which an attitude of neutrality is in fact an attitude of abdication.

Paul’s words show us a better way. Paul assumes that the fundamental channels of education are mimetic, that they involve learning by imitation, a process in which the choice of admirable examples to be imitated is all-important: deep calls unto deep, refinement begets refinement, high ideals call forth high ideals, noble deeds leave a deposit of noble character. We become the things we contemplate. At the same time, a steady diet of triviality, mediocrity, baseness, and propaganda in education has a very different effect, and leaves us far less than what we could have been. Those things we choose as exemplary become, in the end, a window into what we believe it means to be most fully human, the belief that is at the bottom of all other subjects and pursuits in a real education.

And to be most fully human is always to aspire to be something more than what we are: to aspire to overcome ourselves, improve ourselves, and ennoble ourselves, by holding before ourselves images of high achievement and admirable character, to which we compare ourselves and hold ourselves accountable. It is important to get students out of their caves, but it is equally important to give them the most estimable things to contemplate, once their eyes have adjusted to the light. Yes, they need to learn the art of critical thinking. But they also need, even more, the art of appreciation, of learning to fall in love with beautiful things — not just the beauty of art and literature and music, but the beauty of geometrical form, of mathematical order, of the earth and heavens, of the astonishing variety of organic life.

We should bring our young out of their various caves, into the light of a common world, and we should teach them to love estimable things. Finally, and this is my third point about teaching, we should resolve always to do these things in a way that confirms that there is no substitute for the classroom teacher. This may sound a little self-serving — and in some ways it is — but let me explain.

We live in a time in which the costs of education are so crushingly high, and the levels of educational attainment so disappointingly low, that it is only reasonable for responsible people to look for better and more cost-effective ways of going about the work of educating the young. The technological revolution we are living through has given them the tools to contemplate a radical streamlining of our fundamental approach to schooling and teaching. One of the chief expenses of any educational institution is the cost of its personnel, its teachers. And the more that education becomes understood as the transmission of knowledge and skills that can be learned and assessed without resort to flesh-and-blood teachers, the more likely it will be that teaching may come to be seen as the superfluous element in the process. One clever software program could replace the work of a thousand teachers. The idea of “learning without teachers” will come naturally, all too naturally, to a generation acclimated to the anonymity of the electronic cave.

It need hardly be said that this will be an inferior education, and we do not have the time to count the ways. I want to stress only one of them. When you take away the teacher, you take away the human presence. It is one thing to listen alone to a videotaped lecture; it is quite another to hear the same subject expounded by a flesh-and-blood human being standing there before you: someone responsive to your questions, attentive to your particular concerns, capable of cracking jokes about the events of the day, someone with the full range of human quirks and oddities, and yet also someone for whom the subject forms a living and present reality, someone with whom you can have a personal relationship.

There is an electricity in the sheer human presence that draws us in, as every theatergoer or churchgoer knows, in ways that can be only remotely approximated by televised or online content. That electricity is generated not merely by one’s teacher but also by the presence of one’s fellow students, whose company makes the classroom into a community of sorts.

Furthermore, a teacher is an exemplar. She is not merely a person who imparts knowledge to others by an orderly process. She is a living, walking, breathing example of the kind of person that a superior education can produce, one whose soul has been formed, and is still being formed, by love of whatsoever things are true, and fine, and noble.

In a sense, you can put all three of my precepts together, and they begin to look like three aspects of what is in fact one activity. We free the young from their caves; usher them into the light and into a larger, common world; give them the most admirable and beautiful things to contemplate; and all the while seek to embody as best we can the love of those very things in our lives. Education is nothing if it is not embodied and lived in human life. The human presence is the key to it all; and the human presence is, and always must be, modeled in the life and person of the teacher.

Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, and a member of All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City. This essay is adapted from a  presentation to the faculty of the Academy of Classical Christian Studies in Oklahoma City.