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Rethinking the Future of the University

David Lyle Jeffrey
Dominic Manganiello

Part III. Where are we going?

The future of teaching

Mark R. Schwehn

Texte intégral

  • 1 Bernard Bailyn, Education in the Forming of American Society (Random House: New York, 1960), 14.

1In 1960, the distinguished American colonial historian Bernard Bailyn published a small essay that deeply influenced the manner in which an entire generation of social and intellectual historians came to think about education. Entitled Education in the Forming of American Society, the essay argued for a view of education that now seems to be very much a commonplace, namely that education should not be reduced to “schooling” but that it should instead be regarded as “the entire process by which a culture transmits itself across the generations.”1 Having argued with characteristic subtlety for this latter view, Bailyn proceeded to show how schools in the English colonies arose in response to the reconfiguration of other institutions—indentured servanthood, apprenticeship, the family and the Church—that had for a long time been the primary agents of cultural transmission.

2It is very unlikely that we would have needed Bailyn to tell us all of this today. The personal experiences of any college teacher will quickly demonstrate the extent to which his or her work is in part defined by the operation of institutions of cultural transmission other than the college or university. We all notice that an increasing number of our students shows the effects of abuse, neglect and divorce. We all worry over the schools that educate younger children. And few of us have not complained at one time or another about the decline of cultural literacy among our students and the rise in a certain kind of visual sophistication. Paradise Lost!!!?? Is that a rock group or a video game? Finally, do we not find ourselves asked increasingly to “minister to the whole student” or to “educate the whole person” when these injunctions are often code words for increasing university expenditures for support services like psychological counselling and drug abuse centres? All of these experiences lead us to sense in the fabric of our daily lives the extent to which the allocation of university resources, the substance of our curriculum, our choice of study materials, our level of expectation, our vocabulary, even our pedagogical style are shaped by a multitude of social institutions outside of the academy that are themselves for better or for worse involved in education.

  • 2 Ibid., 7.
  • 3 Ibid., 9.

3But although we would all instantly agree, on the basis of experience if nothing else, that education should not be and cannot be reduced to schooling, we would probably nevertheless think, at least in our unguarded moments, that teaching refers to something like “classroom activity.” In other words, though many of us are disposed to a more broadly cultural understanding of education, we are also disposed toward a more narrowly professional understanding of teaching. And indeed this latter disposition was precisely what led to the historiographical situation that Bernard Bailyn sought to improve a generation ago in his pathbreaking book. The history of education had, according to Bailyn, fallen into the hands of professional teachers of education sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. And once that happened, the whole purpose of histories of education became, in Bailyn’s words, “to dignify a new self-conscious profession by arguing that modem education was a cosmic force leading mankind to a full realization of itself.”2 This self-serving agenda in turn led these historians of education to “direct their attention almost exclusively to the part of the educational process carried on in formal institutions of instruction.” By so limiting their subject, they “lost the capacity to see it in its full context and hence to assess the variety and magnitude of the burdens it had borne and to judge its historical importance.”3

4I think we might at this point be in danger of losing our capacity to see the full context of teaching and to judge its historical importance. I therefore want to suggest that unless we remind ourselves that teaching is a vocation that extends far beyond disciplinary guilds and self-contained classrooms, we risk misunderstanding both its nature and its purposes. If we think of teaching simply as classroom activity or even more broadly but still restrictively as a collegial activity, we will be inclined to make one of two fundamental errors. We will either reduce it to a set of methods and techniques, turning it finally into a technology, or we will mystify it by turning it into an occult practice that defies rational appraisal or description.

5I want to suggest instead that good thinking about good teaching begins with the recognition that teaching is a basic human practice whose excellence depends upon the exercise of certain intellectual and moral virtues. Teaching is closer to an art than it is to a techne, and, though it certainly involves mysterious transactions, it is nevertheless a public activity that is improvable through practice and criticism. Finally, I will invite you to consider what I regard as the principal threat to good teaching and the principal opportunity for it. The principal threat to good college and university teaching arises, I will argue, from certain tendencies within the modern research university itself. The principal opportunity arises from the desperate need, in Canada, the United States and throughout the world, for a renewal of civil society. Good teaching and liberal learning are now, I think, more than ever before, indispensable to the continuity of democracy itself.

6At some level we all recognize that teaching is a basic human art more than it is a professional practice like medicine or law. This summer, I asked a group of adults two questions that I would ask you now if we had time for you to ponder them carefully. The first question was, “Who were the three most important teachers in your life?” The second question was, “What, if anything, did these three people have in common?” Few people included more than one professionally trained teacher in their list of three; they listed instead parents, spouses, friends, neighbors, pastors, siblings and other relatives. So much for professionalism. But more important, almost no one in answer to the second question about what the three teachers had in common listed techniques or teaching styles. On the contrary. The three teachers selected were invariably very different from one another in terms of what they taught and how they taught it and even in terms of how well they knew or appeared to know what they taught. But they invariably had in common certain attitudes toward their craft or subject and toward their pupils as well. They moreover had certain qualities of character in common—integrity, truthfulness, compassion, dedication, empathy, attentiveness and love were frequently mentioned. In brief, people know good teaching when they see it, and when they try to describe it they rarely if ever do so in terms of some favored technique even though a great deal of literature about teaching until quite recently emphasized technique over almost everything else.

7These observations suggest that if we want to develop a rich account of good teaching, we must begin by looking to what the lives of teachers of liberal and professional studies have in common with the lives of grandparents teaching their grandchildren how to sew or how to fish and with barge pilots or fly fishermen teaching apprentices how to read a river. Before we think about teaching chemistry or history or philosophy or economics we need to think about generic human excellences that make teaching of any kind possible.

  • 4 Mark R. Schwehn, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (Oxford Universit (...)

8In my book Exiles from Eden, I tried to specify and then to elaborate upon a few of those qualities of character that are indispensable to both teaching and learning.4 An arrogant teacher, for example, no matter how well she understands organic chemistry, is apt to be unresponsive to her students and impatient with their errors and hesitations. Humility, therefore, is both a human excellence and a pedagogical virtue. It would be an interesting and worthy project to articulate in a more systematic fashion those virtues whose exercise is most important for good teaching and to rank them accordingly. They would surely include, in addition to humility, faith, justice, courage, prudence, temperance, honesty and, perhaps above all, charity. Indeed, my favorite brief account of the vocation of teaching has become the unofficial motto of the honors college where I teach. It comes from the eleventh century and St. Bernard of Clairvaux as follows: “Some seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity; others seek knowledge that they may themselves be known: that is vanity; but there are still others who seek knowledge in order to serve and edify others, and that is charity.”

  • 5 J.H. Hexter, The Historical Primer (Basic Books: New York, 1971), 234.

9Many of you will agree with what I have said thus far, but you may need some persuasion in order to be convinced of the next point I wish to make about pedagogical virtues. These are not simply moral virtues that, when accompanied by the exercise of certain intellectual virtues, yield good teaching. Rather, moral and spiritual virtues like justice and charity have cognitive significance. My own discipline is history, and I remember very well how moved I was when I read J.H. Hexter’s The Historical Primer. Hexter was and remains one of the most terrifying polemicists of the historical profession. He once parodied H.R. Trevor-Roper’s interpretation of the English Civil War as a conflict between the little piggies who went to court and had roast beef (the court gentry) and the little piggies who stayed at home and had none (the country gentry). But Hexter’s polemical zeal was driven in large part by his deep aversion to sloppy reasoning and carelessness with evidence. He puts this whole matter more positively himself at the end of The Historical Primer when he lists charity as the supreme historical virtue.5 By charity he means a taking care of the thoughts, the deeds and the lives of others. Being care-ful.

10My own practice as a historian has repeatedly vindicated Hexter’s view, and has shown me time and again tire cognitive value of charity. I have in mind here criticism I have received or that I have repeatedly levelled at myself regarding my thinking about, say, William James, a figure long dead. “You have really not done James full justice in your discussion of his religious views.” Or again, “you really need to be more charitable to James in your analysis of his courtship and marriage.” Notice that the vocabulary of moral and spiritual virtue—here justice and charity—easily insinuates itself into appraisals of thought as well as action. If I have grown to treat my colleagues and my students with justice and charity, am I more or less apt to treat historical subjects such as William James in the same manner? I am surely more apt to do so. And would such treatment increase or decrease the quality of my historical thinking? Again, I think that the exercise of charity toward my historical subjects is bound to make me a better historian— more cautious in appraisal, more sympathetic with human failings, less prone to stereotype and caricature. And insofar as this is so, the manner of teaching others to think historically ought to cultivate, at least through force of example, the virtue of charity.

11Some of you may by now be convinced that if we are to think well about our teaching, we must begin with some thorough discussion of our own characters through a consideration of those human virtues that promote the excellence of all teaching. But many of us here, I trust, are after all university professors, and we teach liberal and professional studies. Does it not seem true that much of what makes for good teaching is context-specific, depending upon our academic disciplines, the level of knowledge of our students, the size of our classes, and so forth? Can we really say that a description of the good teacher of advanced analytical chemistry would be the same description as the description of a good teacher of Freshman English or Introductory French?

12The answer here seems to be “Yes, but of course not.” Yes, we would expect all good teachers, including the analytical chemist and the French Professor, to be just and charitable. But no, we should not of course expect all of them to teach in the same manner. This is the trouble with much of the literature on teaching technique, which makes it seem as though certain methods are uniformly or universally applicable. Conversation about teaching techniques is fine; I engage in it all the time, and I have learned almost everything I value about teaching from watching my teachers and my colleagues and listening to them talk about how they teach. But finally no one can give me a technique that will tell me whether, when and how to apply a given technique in a given class. That is why good teaching is an art rather than a techne or a science. It depends upon a great deal of self-knowledge, upon no small amount of experience, and, here we come to the virtues again, upon the exercise of prudential wisdom.

13Even so, you may have noticed that I was myself compelled, in the course of my account of the pedagogical virtues, to draw upon my own discipline of history. And I do think that it is important, especially in these days and times, to bear in mind that university teaching at each and every moment, involves a discipline and points toward some subject or another. Though the liberal arts as a whole are not defined by a subject matter, this truth can easily obscure at least one other truth if it is pushed too far, namely the truth that in each and every class in liberal and professional studies there is very definitely a subject, a collective focus of attention and comprehension. Sometimes this is a text, at other times an experiment, a natural phenomenon, a social action, any number of things.

14It is especially important for teachers to bear this latter truth in mind these days, since we are being urged by some of our colleagues to correct for what they believe to have been an era of “teacher-centred” learning by inaugurating an era of “student-centred” learning. The proper rejoinder to the counsel that we should let the students dictate the shape and the substance of classroom activity is not I think simply to reassert the importance of the subject, as I have done thus far. Rather, we should describe the complex web of interactions among teachers, students and subjects in terms of a series of questions like those raised by Joseph McDonald as follows:

  • 6 Joseph P. McDonald, Teaching: Making Sense of an Uncertain Craft (Teachers College Press: New York (...)

Real teaching... happens inside a wild triangle of relations—among teacher, students, subject—and the points of this triangle shift continuously. What shall I teach amid all that I might teach? How can I grasp it myself so that my grasping may enable theirs? What are they thinking and feeling—toward me, toward each other, toward the thing I am trying to teach? How near should I come, how far off should I stay? How much clutch, how much gas.6

15Or, perhaps better still, as Margret Buchmann has written in her fine book The Careful Vision: How Practical Is Contemplation in Teaching?\

  • 7 Margret Buchmann, The Careful Vision: How Practical Is Contemplation in Teaching? Issue Paper 89-1 (...)

Teaching demands recognizing that students and teaching subjects can neither be known altogether, nor once and for all. The more teachers think about their subjects, the less they are sure of their ground, becoming clearer about the limits of their understanding and coming to share in the “learned uncertainty” of scholars. The more they contemplate their students, the more they will become aware of the fact that their knowledge of them is imperfect and constructed, a fallible vision also because people change, and are supposed to change, in school.7

16In brief, we must maintain two seemingly incompatible things at once if we are to be credible teachers of the liberal arts, broadly under-understood: first, that these arts have no defining subject matter; second, that liberal learning is nonetheless to a degree subject-centred, that in another sense these arts, in any given instance of their exercise, always have a subject. Perhaps one of our principal pedagogical challenges these days is to maintain these two positions at once in the face of certain intellectual fashions that would invite us to deconstruct our subjects altogether or to dissolve them without remainder into the imagination of the teacher or the responses of the students or both.

17If good teaching must be responsive to the context of the relevant academic discipline and the peculiar difficulties of the subject, it must also be responsive to the technologies through which it operates. We are, after all, living in the midst of the so-called Information Age. Closer to home here, the University of Ottawa takes justifiable pride in its pace-setting ventures in co-operative and distance learning. We would be quite remiss if, in a talk on the “Future of Teaching” we did not reckon with the new technologies that make widely accessible forms of communication possible that seemed a few years ago inconceivable. Yet here it is quite hazardous to make any predictions. We are already learning that these new technologies have not delivered on two of the promises their early prophets and defenders made to us. First, these technologies are expensive; they are not, as some promised, saving us money. Second, these technologies are stress-inducing; they are not, as others reassured us, creating a more relaxed atmosphere for teaching and learning. And this may indeed be the major threat posed to good teaching by the new technologies, for good teaching depends upon the space and time to contemplate and reflect. Frantic speed is inimical to sound pedagogy.

18But beyond these two caveats, it would be, I think, a mistake at this point to imagine that the Internet, for example, is by itself, either inimical to good teaching or friendly to it. Rather, we should treat the Internet, as we should treat all technological innovations that have pedagogical applications, as another part of the context that helps to shape the character and possibilities of teaching and learning, not as either a bête noire or a panacea. So, for example, we should not make the mistake that some critics of the Internet make, when they claim that it depersonalizes teaching and learning. These people conflate person-to-person communication with face-to-face communication, and they then tend to make something of a mystical fetish of the latter form of conversation at the expense of the former kind. An hour’s experience will undermine months of theorizing in this regard. Many of my students find themselves empowered to speak on the Internet. They are shy in public; they feel more comfortable if they can revise on screen before they make what is on their screen public. Or, like E.M. Forster, they do not really know what they think until they see what they have written. So writing their remarks actually clarifies their ideas for them to the point that they find the confidence to express them publicly. In brief, in several respects, the possibilities of distance learning are liberating for both teachers and students. The diversity and range of dialogue partners increases geometrically, new levels of candor and intellectual refinement are encouraged, and many people are included in the conversation who would otherwise be self-excluded for reasons not at all related to the quality of their ideas.

19The Internet is hardly a bête noire, but it is not a panacea either, and, if it is relied upon exclusively as a teaching vehicle, it can lead to serious losses. It may, for example, encourage the view that thought is a disembodied enterprise, free from anchorage in personality, social location, history and an entire complex of material considerations. A person is accountable for something he or she says in class in a way that he or she is not accountable on the Internet. In the former case, the student must live with the remark she made, live in the company of others to whom she made the remark and who in turn can be expected to know its larger significance by virtue of knowing her. In the worst case scenario, the Internet could be related to classroom discussion as the television, call-in talk show is related to dining table conversation. In the former contexts—the Internet and the talk show—persons are not responsible for what they say in the same robust sense in which they are responsible in the latter contexts. And this is potentially dangerous to both liberal education and to professional study.

20These comments are not meant to “solve the problem” of the new technological context for teaching in our time; rather, they are meant to exemplify what I believe must be our communal response to the problem. We must take matters up on a case-by-case basis, and we must be wary reasoners here, unmoved by apocalyptic rhetoric on either side of the issue. We should remind ourselves that teaching, like camping, is a complex activity that embraces a wide range of simpler activities that in turn constitute it. Yes, both hiking and packing are parts of camping, but camping cannot be reduced to either hiking or packing. Yes, both imparting information and listening attentively are part of teaching, but teaching cannot be reduced to either of these activities. The principal error in most debates about, for example, the impact of the Internet upon teaching, is that people on the one side refuse to acknowledge that imparting information is, after all, a part of teaching, while people on the other side speak as though teaching is just imparting information. For the former group, the Internet is an abomination; for the latter, a technological triumph. But it is neither one, as I have said. It does make good teachers responsible for and to a new set of resources and skills that their students often know better than they do, but it does not alter the fundamental character of teaching itself. So the real question is seldom what we imagine it to be. It is almost never an abstract question like, “Is teaching just imparting information?” It is instead, always a question involving practical reasoning, such as, “Given these students, this subject, these purposes and those constraints, do I need now to provide more information or to formulate more productive problems and questions?” And, “if I do now need to provide more information, what is the best way of doing that, given the resources at my disposal?” Good teaching always needs more resourcefulness more than it needs more resources.

21I said at the beginning of this talk that we must at all costs avoid both reducing teaching to a set of techniques and shrouding it behind a thicket of mystical verbiage. I hope you will agree that I have avoided the first mistake. You are certainly entitled to wonder, however, whether I have altogether avoided the second. Have I not suggested that the more teachers think about their teaching the less sure they are of their ground? And have I not spoken of teaching as an art, calling for the constant application of practical wisdom? And have I not admitted that good teaching requires a good bit of self-knowledge, and that it is to an important degree dependent upon both the context of the relevant academic discipline and upon the context of available technologies? Do these several observations taken together risk mystification? Or, to raise a more practical question, does this account of teaching render teaching an activity that is impossible to evaluate fairly?

22Let me be blunt: my account of teaching here probably does suggest that most faculty evaluation programs currently in place will be woefully inadequate. But it would be a grave mistake to draw from this admission the conclusion that we should not evaluate teaching. On the contrary, faculty must subject themselves to regular evaluation of their teaching as a matter of justice and professional integrity. They should not subject themselves, however, to perfunctory evaluations that result in shoddy appraisals and an erosion of collegiality. Or, to put it positively, we need radically to review our evaluation procedures to bring them into alignment with our sense of the complex nature of the art of teaching.

  • 8 Mary C. Boys, S.N.J.M., “Evaluating an Uncertain Craft: Faculty Assessment and Theological Educati (...)

23Mary C. Boys suggests that we think of faculty assessment rather than faculty evaluation. The Latin root of the word “assessment,” she points out, is the word assidere, meaning “to sit beside.”8 She therefore argues that assessment should be viewed as a collegial process that approximates a mentoring relationship between the faculty member being assessed and the faculty members doing the assessing. In addition to student evaluations, all such assessments should minimally include the faculty member’s own assessment through a portfolio or portrait and the sponsorship of a series of conversations on teaching. In my judgment, Boys’ article sets out in great detail a process of appraisal that is commensurate with the complex art of teaching itself. Indeed, if we were half as careful about the manner in which we assess teaching as we are about the manner in which we assess scholarship, teaching would seem much less mysterious and scholarship would seem more so. Instead, having proclaimed that it is impossible to competently evaluate teaching, we tend to rush through teaching assessments and then pronounce them unfair, inadequate and counterproductive. This is, on almost every campus, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

24The entire complex of the historical and social conditions that collectively describe the current context for our teaching sets before us once more and with renewed urgency the question the citizens of Athens faced during the trial of Socrates. Is teaching finally an act of piety, as Socrates thought, or an act of impiety as his Athenian judges concluded? And does an education finally undermine citizenship by corrupting the young, as the Athenians believed, or does it make us and our students better human beings and citizens, as Socrates taught?

  • 9 Richard Rorty,!“Religion as Conversation-Stopper,” Common Knowledge 3 (Spring 1994), 1-6.

25If George Marsden is correct, and I believe he is correct, we have witnessed over the course of the last century an unprecedented marginalization of religion in academic life in the United States. In The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), he argues that though religious activities of one kind or another abound on our campuses, large and small, public and private, religious motivations, questions, attitudes and virtues are conspicuous by their absence from the central activities of the academy—teaching, learning and scholarship. The pursuit of wisdom, whatever it may be today, is certainly not regarded on most college and university campuses in the U.S. as an act of piety. On the contrary, in order to engage credibly in public, academic conversation about the truth of matters, one must on most campuses keep one’s religious convictions private. “Religion,” in the words of the philosopher Richard Rorty, “is a conversation stopper.”9

26Whether by coincidence or through some subtle reciprocal processes, the consignment of religion to the margins of academia has accompanied a gradual process of dissolution both of citizenship and of civil society. As yet another McMartin lecturer, Jean Bethke Elshtain, has argued in her book Democracy on Trial, the nurseries of democracy, the very institutions that define the larger ecology of our own colleges and universities, have been steadily unravelling—the family, the neighborhood, the voluntary civic organization and the Church. It is as though Athens, not Socrates, had taken the hemlock.

  • 10 Exiles from Eden, 57,137.

27In Exiles from Eden I raised the question of whether virtues such as humility, charity and self-denial, which are indispensable to teaching and learning, could be sustained indefinitely in the absence of those religious communities whose practices, rituals, stories, convictions and communal forms originally gave rise to those virtues and helped to sustain them over time.10 I wondered then, and I still wonder, whether we may all be living off of borrowed moral capital, taken without replenishment from religious traditions that have been occluded, at least within many universities, on the grounds that religion leads invariably to intolerance and anti-intellectualism. If the vocation of a teacher must include, as I have argued it must, the cultivation, both within the soul of the teacher and within the souls of her students, of those virtues that make learning of any kind possible, then how long can good teaching flourish without some understanding of inquiry as an act of piety?

28These observations and questions provide the framework for my concluding remarks about the future of teaching. My thesis is simple. Whatever subject we may teach, we are, within the university, bound by the corporate vocation of the university itself to be about the business of education, of leading students out of the prison houses of prejudice and ignorance, of freeing them from the unexamined tyrannies that hold sway over their minds and freeing them for love of the world through lifelong and active engagement with fundamental human questions and with the project of human flourishing. Education must always aim at the higher, at the achievement of self-transcendence and the pursuit of the truth of matters. In whatever idiom and with whatever images we might wish to vivify this noble endeavor, teaching is finally a sacred task and a religious vocation.

29These claims will seem tautological to many of you. But if so, they are tautologies well worth remembering. And besides, as Samuel Johnson has said, “we are more often reminded than we are instructed.” In our time, however, these truths have a rather fragile standing within at least some precincts of the academy. Too many of our colleagues are convinced that the quest for truth is nothing more and nothing less than a thickly disguised quest for power and dominion. Too many others contend that our alleged truths reduce without remainder to elaborate articulations of the perspectives that arise from our own class, race or gender. And an increasing number of intellectuals, both inside and outside of the academy, suggest that we finally fashion ourselves and our worlds at will.

30There are parallels to these developments in the civic realm. To the contemporary suggestions that only women can understand women, or that only Africans can understand Africans, or that only gay men should teach courses about gay men, we have the civic counterpart of “identity politics,” quests for power that are based upon the dubious assumption that we are first and last women or Asians or poor people and never really citizens. To the teaching that the quest for truth is only a quest for power we have the civic counterpart in the operational denial, in many of our instruments of mass communication, of distinctions between political argument, gossip and propaganda. And to the belief that we can fashion our own worlds at will, we have the civic counterparts of the denial of nature, the refusal to recognize limits and the careless manipulation of the environment. In short, an abdication of the aspiration to higher things within the academy is part of the same process that has led to the abdication of the notion of a common good within the civil society. The academic abandonment of the quest to enlarge our vision coincides with the civic abandonment of the ideal of citizenship.

  • 11 Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6 (Jan (...)

31These are not idle speculations. Robert D. Putnam has observed that in the United States membership in organizations such as parent-teacher associations, the League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, all Fraternal Organizations and the Red Cross, has fallen catastrophically over the last 30 years—by over 40 percent in most cases. In the meantime, membership in self-help organizations has soared. So too has membership within large and impersonal national associations that are organized around a single issue. Unlike the smaller, face-to-face organizations that further a variety of civic and social purposes, the self-help groups provide support for persons with particular problems who terminate their membership as soon as their problem has been solved. The single-cause organizations are made up of millions of members who remain anonymous to one another and who share as a common activity only the payment of regular membership dues.11

32The alarming trend here is quite clear. The smaller civic societies and social clubs nurtured habits of compromise, mutual responsibility and accountability, and they were constantly renewed by the discovery of common purposes. The associations that are replacing them reinforce differences, solidify and intensify abstract disagreements or provide a kind of group therapy for the lonely and disenfranchised. What Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French student of English and American institutions, once identified as the nurseries of democracy have been replaced by a proliferation of interest groups and therapeutic collectives. And the results of this reconfiguration of loyalty and group endeavor are equally clear. The percentage of U.S. citizens who vote continues to decline, neighborliness has all but disappeared, social trust is at a premium and the distrust of politics and politicians rises every year.

33But what does this have to do with teaching and the future of teaching? University teachers must either do their parts to reverse these disturbing trends or they must be complicit with them. So long as knowing is regarded as an individual state of mind rather than an interpersonal activity, so long as individual research projects, sometimes undertaken at the expense of good teaching, are the only path to academic preferment, so long as the university is regarded by its members as more and more a resource centre and less and less a community of scholars, so long as teaching is itself understood exclusively in terms of the transmission of knowledge and skills at the expense of the cultivation of character and virtue, so long as the imperatives of hyper-specialization lead teachers to retreat further and further into the realms of cyberspace, so long as, finally, education becomes mere training at the expense of the sacred task of inquiry, university teachers will aid and abet the unravelling of the fabric of democracy.

34Considerations such as these shape the distinctive character of our tasks today. For centuries universities have lived in tension with a variety of prevailing regimes. Their service to society has been understood as in some sense connected both to the distinctively academic virtues of critical reasoning and to the prophetic task of speaking truth to power. Socrates has therefore always been, in some sense or another, on trial. But now democracy is itself on trial, and the terrible weapons of critical thinking in the absence of the moral and spiritual virtues that have kept that thinking at its best lovingly and responsibly engaged with a larger civic culture have here and there threatened to inflict upon democracy itself wounds from which it may not recover easily. Many of us therefore find ourselves in the following paradoxical situation: we are most critical of the prevailing culture when we are most irenic, most countercultural when we are friendly to democracy, most authentically advanced in our thinking when we are most old-fashioned in our loyalty to ideals like self-transcendence and universality.

  • 12 Plato, Meno, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett Publishing Co.: Indianapolis, 1976), 20.

35So the future of teaching is at this moment in history bound up in peculiar ways to the future of democratic government. Socrates would find this a strange world. And since I have so often invoked him, I might as well close by quoting him. In Plato’s only dialogue on the subject of education, Meno, Socrates at one point interrupts the flow of the dialectic to make a profession of faith. “I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects, but I would contend at all costs that we will be better human beings, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it.”12 We are better and braver human beings if we believe in the possibility of inquiry. To this we add two corollaries. First, unless we are brave and virtuous, we cannot inquire. Second, unless we construe our tasks as teachers to include the cultivation of virtues like courage and charity, we will fail ourselves, our students, our universities and, in this day and age, our democracy as well.


1 Bernard Bailyn, Education in the Forming of American Society (Random House: New York, 1960), 14.

2 Ibid., 7.

3 Ibid., 9.

4 Mark R. Schwehn, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (Oxford University Press: New York, 1993), 47-57.

5 J.H. Hexter, The Historical Primer (Basic Books: New York, 1971), 234.

6 Joseph P. McDonald, Teaching: Making Sense of an Uncertain Craft (Teachers College Press: New York, 1992), 1.

7 Margret Buchmann, The Careful Vision: How Practical Is Contemplation in Teaching? Issue Paper 89-1 (National Centre for Research on Teacher Education: Michigan State University, 1989), 18.

8 Mary C. Boys, S.N.J.M., “Evaluating an Uncertain Craft: Faculty Assessment and Theological Education”, Theological Education 31 (Spring 1995), 41. This fine article applies to teaching in all disciplines, not simply theology. I wish to thank Professor Boys for calling the two preceding articles to my attention.

9 Richard Rorty,!“Religion as Conversation-Stopper,” Common Knowledge 3 (Spring 1994), 1-6.

10 Exiles from Eden, 57,137.

11 Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6 (January 1995), 65-73.

12 Plato, Meno, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett Publishing Co.: Indianapolis, 1976), 20.


Dean of Christ College, Valparaiso University, is an intellectual historian. He received the Nevins prize for The Making of Modern Consciousness in America: The Works and Careers of Henry Adams and William James (1978), and has co-authored A William James Renaissance. His most recent book is the acclaimed Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (1993)

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