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‘Teaching yourself’

October 12, 2011

‘We can only teach ourselves’ is a phrase one hears in educational circles.

I guess this is true on some level, but I do not want to turn out copies of myself in my students – that seems completely wrong. I also think it is wrong for institutions to turn out ‘types’ of students. What can this really mean: They all vote Conservative? They are all kind to animals? They are all entrepreneurs? They all like gooseberry jam? The idea seems ridiculous. Surely the aim of education is to allow the individual to realise their full potential, to become fulfilled through their learning – and that cannot happen if the institution or the teacher puts preconditions on the outcome of where the learning will lead.

I have been challenged: ‘Would you think you had failed if one of your students emerged from your classes espousing beliefs you find execrable: say they became a violent racist?’ But, in fact, I have not had to think long about this: the answer is, no, I would not. It is not the job of the teacher to ensure that everyone who ever attends their class emerges with exactly the same politics, ethics and economics as they, the teacher, hold. I have been pushed on this: ‘What about if, in a class of 30, about 5 students emerged to set up a violent and sadistic movement based on some interpretation of what you have taught in the class?’. Well, of course the interrogation has a point: there is some cut-off, where is it? 5%? 10%? 25%? where you would  start to doubt yourself seriously as a teacher, where you would have to face the fact that your deepest beliefs were somehow being traduced despite your best intentions, or no intentions at all.

If I really, really have to put a number on a ‘satisfaction rate’ for this sort of thing then, I would say ‘around 85%’. That is, if in a class of 50, about 7 students emerged with views violently opposed to my own, I could just about live with it, without feeling like I had failed. But in general with these sorts of horribly difficult moral questions (like the one: ‘Would you torture a child if you knew it would say thousands of lives?’), I think all one can actually do is respond with ad hoc arguments. This is far from some of the positions on moral absolutes taken by Kant and others, but I don’t see another way. The sheer complexity of possible factors makes it impossible to say in advance at what point one would have to say that one had failed. So, for example, you may espouse one view on economics when events taking place outside the classroom conspire to cast this view into doubt. In such a case it would not be surprising if a large proportion of your students took a different stance on economics to your own.

When I teach, I am happy for students to take ‘bits’ of me. That is, although I cannot help ‘teaching myself’ I hope (and, indeed, believe) that not all of me will be of interest to students and, indeed, that large chunks of me may even be unintelligible (or even unappealing!) to students. They should take the stuff they need, that they can work with, that they can build on to develop themselves in the way they want to develop.

This may sound diffident, unattractively self-deprecating but, if I may be so bold (!), I think it is the opposite. A teacher with this approach has a fundamental confidence that there is enough about them, there is ‘enough of them to teach’, if you will, that they have no need to make prescriptions or proscriptions for students, no need to hector students into believing one thing or another. The teacher has a confidence that in the richness of their teaching, and, indeed, in the richness and diversity of their being, their students will find what they need to take forward and make their own.

This is also a plea – or perhaps, better, a way of arguing for – diversity in education. Diversity in both teaching and learning, and diversity in outcomes. In case I am accused of not taking enough of a stand on some issues, here is a stand I take. I believe in the infinite diversity of human nature and I believe that societies work best, in sum, when they are diverse. Education, in its broadest aims, then, should try to achieve these ends – if maximum diversity can be called an end – for individuals and for society.

We cannot avoid ‘teaching ourselves’, but we should be confident that this does not imply explicitly teaching a doctrine, or any kind of dogma or prescribed method, nor does it imply that we should turn out students who are ‘like us’ in anything other than the most general traits.

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