What is great teaching? As learners, we know it when we see it. Sometimes it confronts us immediately and sometimes it takes years to become apparent, but eventually the gift of great teaching makes itself known. I know it in the flashes of ‘ah hah!’ or the echoes of insistent questions still prompting me years after the original question was posed. I know it by the butterflies of an academic crush or when I realize that I have successfully accomplished something I didn’t think I knew how to do. I know it when I see that the possibilities in front of me have shifted, that they are somehow different or new.
In 1981, Joseph Epstein edited a wonderful volume aptly titled Portraits of Great Teachers. The chapters bring together essays of “critical appreciation,” each written by a student of a great teacher. These essays welcome their readers into the diverse experiences of being a student of Hannah Arendt or Leo Strauss, each presented with the nuanced texture of critical reflection. What becomes apparent through the collection is the variety of great teaching. What also becomes apparent is the power of great teaching.
The word “great” itself reminds us of this power. “Great” can indicate value, but it also can emphasize size, rank, influence, and importance. History is full of great politicians who have perpetrated great harms, for instance. As great thinkers from Socrates through Rousseau have insisted, great teaching carries great power – with all the potential connotations of “great” – for cultivating people and communities, as well as institutions and societies. Part of becoming great is learning to wield the power of teaching knowledgably and responsibly, so that the exercise of this power works for the good of one’s students, society, and the world. Teaching is never neutral. As teachers, it is important that we consider carefully what questions or patterns of engagement we want enduring years into the future; it is essential that we shape our teaching with the knowledge that its effects will be both manifold and persistent.
There have been many, many answers to the question of how best to teach for the good of the world. Over the course of this year, I will be exploring some of these arguments in a regular series of posts. I want to provoke substantive consideration of what benefits, challenges, opportunities or dangers might lie in different approaches to teaching. What do different pedagogies hold dear and what do they refuse? What consequences do different approaches effect? Why, for instance, do John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and bell hooks argue so passionately? I hope that you will join me in this exploration by raising questions, ideas, and further conversations in the comments, responding not only to me but to each other.
And with that, let’s be off together on this journey. Up next: that towering philosopher, Immanuel Kant. See you in three weeks!
* Joseph Epstein, Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers. New York: Basic Books, 1981. Widener WID-LC LA2301 .M37