Philosophy of Teaching

Chief among the many topics of Plato’s Republic is the importance of forming and organizing desires. (Augustine in his City of God calls this topic rightly ordered loves.) The Republic ends with a discussion about poetry, and the reason for Plato’s arrangement is that poetry, broadly construed as “imaginative literature,” powerfully shapes human desires. Our contemporary world is full of narratives that give us visions of the good life, and what we read and watch and listen to will shape what we desire. The importance of rightly ordered desires, or loves, is hard to overstate for this reason: affection drives cognition. That is, what we love shapes what we think, and in the end, what we do. Put simply, the end is inextricably tied up with the beginning, and as Lady Philosophy tells Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy, knowing the beginning without knowing the end produces, not faith or hope, but anxiety. Therefore, as a Christian teacher, I am very motivated to begin with the end in mind.

“Beginning with the end in mind” is a somewhat theoretical way of putting things, but this foundational principle reveals itself in a variety of practical ways. As someone who wants to model the life of a Christian professional for my students, I want students to have a deep-rooted conviction that the fear of the Lord is more than a proposition that applies to church or other religious activities. If we want to end with wisdom, we must begin with the fear of the Lord. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of all wisdom, including the wisdom that pertains to business marketing, organic chemistry, and medieval poetry. In my classes, I want students to see the connections between the subject material and their relationships with God. This is not a forced biblical integration, but rather a simple acknowledgement that all truth is God’s truth. For example, because such connections between faith and academics are not always on the surface, I frequently ask students to think about what obligations Christians have to communicate logically, credibly, and emotionally with an audience, or about what kind of vision of the good life is offered to us through particular works of literature. When studying seventeenth-century lyric poetry with themes of “seizing the moment,” we explore issues of desire, human happiness, and human agency in connection with divine providence. By doing so, we discover fundamental assumptions underlying all of our pursuits. Both in expository writing classes and in literature classes, such questions form the basis of our enterprises, and I feel successful when students make connections between their faith and their individual interests. If I can persuade students that their end, or purpose, in life is to glorify and enjoy God in every activity, then we can move away from a contractual model of education in which students primarily associate courses with grades, and degrees with paychecks.

Pedagogically, I begin with the end in mind by using a certain model of biblical interpretation to guide my teaching in the classroom. In On Christian Teaching, Augustine argues that when interpretations of biblical passages lead readers to love God and their neighbors, those interpretations cannot be far off the mark. I am a teacher, not only because I love the subject, but also because I owe a debt of gratitude to the generation before me, and I want to express my thanks for inspirational teachers by inspiring the next generation. Connecting the past and the future is my way of loving God (by expressing thanks for his good gifts) and loving others (by teaching the next generation). I encourage students to keep these two greatest commandments—loving God and their neighbors—at the forefronts of their minds as they read and respond to texts. For example, when asking students to assess the rhetorical situation in a letter by Martin Luther King, Jr., I spur them to think about how tone and style can contribute to persuading an audience to pursue a virtuous course of action. Not only is the pursuit of virtue an act of obedience, which demonstrates love for God, but it also displays genuine charity for others. Literature and expository writing are gifts from God, and a liberal arts education that reveals God’s creation as a gift makes it possible for education to be as much about formation is it is about information, as students gratefully learn about God’s gifts.

Students learn best when they are constantly reminded of the “end,” or purpose, of the course, and I plan for them to encounter course goals on the very first day of class. By seeing big questions such as “How can we communicate in a way that both glorifies God and persuades our readers?” and “What does it look like to read and respond charitably?” on the syllabus of a writing course, students discover the emphasis of the class in a clear format. But then as we review certain course questions each class period, students gradually internalize the big ideas of the class, and I encourage them to connect their personal lives with what we are learning in class. I want to model the asking of insightful textual questions and prompt students to write and revise their own questions, with the goal of helping them to develop methods for answering those questions based on what the text itself suggests. This practice assists the learning process by getting students not only to ask questions, but also to ask, “What’s the next question?” (103, emphasis added). This kind of holistic student participation facilitates the retention of the subject matter, and students are more willing to participate in the learning process when they have a clear vision of what the goals of the class are. For this reason, I do not want my classes to be strictly lecture-based; discussion is necessary in a participatory learning community. I do not believe that Truth itself is constructed, but I do believe that we enhance our retention and understanding of material by active participation in the learning process.

Finally, “beginning with the end in mind” means that I am always looking to improve as a teacher, because one of my purposes in teaching is to learn alongside my students. Educate literally means “to lead out” of darkness or ignorance, and as the leader of a learning community, I view myself as a participant in the process of being led into a better understanding of the world. Even in a position of authority, I see myself as a co-learner with my students, side by side, as C. S. Lewis describes friends in The Four Loves. I value and learn from students’ input, and if one of the “ends” of education is student learning, then I need to evaluate my own teaching before the end of the semester. I do this from time to time by distributing mid-term evaluations so that I can improve before the end of the semester.

René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire describes human beings as imitative creatures who develop desires based on what we see around us. My desire as a teacher is to model the life of a Christian professional, and I want my students’ desires to be shaped through my teaching and through their intelligent reading of and responding to texts. This shaping is possible because the world inside the text influences the world outside the text. As T. S. Eliot says in “Little Gidding,” “the end of our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Our explorations in literature lead us to see our own human condition more clearly and connect with other human beings. Robert Frost’s “Birches” echoes this sentiment: We climb to gain perspective, but we gain perspective so that we may return to earth. We enter the world of the text, partly to enjoy it, but more importantly to reenter the world outside the text with a fuller understanding than we had before. In his review of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis writes, “As we read we find ourselves sharing their burden; when we have finished, we return to our own life not relaxed but fortified.” Language and literature are about communicating desires to others, and I will be successful if my students develop interpretation and communication skills that reflect the love of Christ, who is Himself the Desire of Nations, the Beginning and the End.