June is the month of graduations. It is also a time to take stock of the school year that has just passed. A recurring question I ask myself is “Why do I teach?” (or try my best to do so). Below is my response.
Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by saying that all human beings by nature desire to learn. We are all innately curious; we seek to know, always and everything. It’s our default mode.
This is probably the main reason why I’ve dedicated the greater part of my life to teaching. In teaching I’ve found the most effective way to pursue my real passion, which is learning.
But teaching isn’t learning! True enough. However, in some sense, teaching is the perfect excuse for learning. One can only teach what one has previously learned. And in teaching, one learns double.
Firstly, he finds out whether he has really learned whatever it is, or was simply under a false impression. Secondly, he also learns to share that precise bit of knowledge with others, something which requires the mastery of a very important craft.
Despite more than 25 years in the teaching profession, frankly, I still have serious doubts about whether it is really possible to teach anyone anything. Socrates’ irony —he only knows that he knows nothing, and knowing nothing, he cannot claim to teach anyone— increasingly makes sense to me.
Little by little, I’ve disabused myself of the common notion of teaching as transmitting knowledge, as if it were a thing or an object. Google and Wikipedia can provide all the factoids and for this students don’t need my help. Perhaps the only way to keep myself from becoming redundant as a teacher is by wedding my teaching to mentoring.
Like all human beings, students, by nature, already desire to learn. Sometimes, I just have to get out of their way. Other times, however, I may have to take a more active role, rekindling the desire for learning when the journey becomes too long, too arduous or even too dangerous for them to travel alone.
My role is to provide guidance and to accompany them to the extent necessary in this wondrous adventure. But ultimately, learning, like walking, is something they can only do by themselves. It would be wrong even to pretend that it could be otherwise.
Another metaphor for teaching, besides being a travel companion, is that of offering a gift. Normally, when presenting a gift, we give the best of what we have. Yet despite our best intentions, unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the other person receiving the gift will actually like it.
Just the same, I think this is a risk is worth taking: presenting my students with the best that I can muster, in the hope that, if not immediately, at least, some day, they will come to appreciate my gift. After all, we do not always value things at once, based on our first impression.
This is especially true, I realize, when it comes to the content of business ethics courses. In any case, it would be a pity that, having renounced wealth by choosing the teaching profession, I would now seek applause and fame.
In other words, teaching for me is nothing else but cultivating in others the love for learning. That way, my students will always continue to learn, even if I’m no longer around to nudge, cajole or grade them.
“Well and good”, one might say. “But let’s get real. What’s in it for you, in this teaching philosophy of ‘tending the fire of learning’ in others?”
Knowledge, viewed as a gift, is indeed a very strange creature. Most of the time, we imagine gifts as objects of competition, something whose possession necessarily entails exclusion. What one wins, all the rest lose. For me, however, this is not the case with knowledge. By sharing what I’ve learned with students, I do not lose it. On the contrary, what I know only grows and increases.
Knowledge displays the characteristics of what we call a “common good”. And as a result of sharing knowledge through teaching, everyone —students, myself and the society of which we form part— ends up very much better, enjoying greatly enriched and improved lives.
Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. For the academic year 2018-2019, he is a visiting professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of the recently published “Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission.