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On Teaching

Teaching can be a profound way of life. Teachers, in many ways, have a difficult job. Perhaps their most difficult task is helping to shape the future while also taking care of the past, and their most difficult question is whether to teach for the world as it is or what it might become. Teaching aims at preserving and passing on the collected wisdom of humanity. In this way the teacher provides stability and continuity. But a teacher must also be a way for students to challenge inherited ideas so they might contribute to a better world. Teaching then is what both preserves and changes society.


A teacher should ‘recognise the immense importance to everyone of that saying “Know Thyself” and at the same time carefully observe our nature and education and training, with its thousand shortcomings in respect to good’ (Plutarch. 1898. Morals: Ethical Essays. Translated by R.R. Shilleto. London: George Bell and Sons, p185-6)


‘are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?’
(Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Penguin, 1969).

Martin Luther

‘A diligent devoted schoolteacher… who faithfully trains and teaches [students] can never receive an adequate reward, and no money is sufficient to pay the debt you owe him’
(Martin Luther)

Simone Weil

‘The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students…’
(in Frost and Bell-Metereau, Simone Weil. On Politics, Religion and Society, Sage, 1998)

Søren Kierkegaard

‘When should one become a teacher? When one has the vigour of youth and the wisdom of old age’
(The Book on Adler)

Carl Rogers

‘When I try to teach. . . I am appalled by the results. . . because sometimes the teaching appears to succeed. When this happens I find that the results are damaging. It seems to cause the individual to distrust his own experience and to stifle significant learning’
(Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn, Charles E Merrill Publishing Company, 1969)

Nicholas Burbules

‘authority is inherent in any teaching-learning relation; it cannot be abrogated or denied even when one wishes to minimise its significance. But authority carries certain costs: It can foster dependency; it implies certain privileges of position that interfere with egalitarian social commitments; it becomes too easily taken for granted in the minds of both student and teacher. Encouraging students to question authority, even inviting challenges to one’s own authority as a teacher, can foster valuable learning—but only a person in authority can do that. . . Institutional customs arrogate dimensions of privilege to teachers that conflict with our attempt to manage authority gracefully. . . At a still deeper level, we who have chosen teaching as a career must acknowledge in ourselves the desires that motivate us’
(Burbules in Burbules and Hansen, Teaching and its Predicaments, Westview Press, 1997)

Rowan Williams

‘The most difficult challenge in the Western university world today is how the university avoids being completely dominated by this external pressure to produce and to offer functional training.’
(Williams ‘What is a University?’)

Søren Kierkegaard

‘would it not be really advantageous if our age, which is so busy with results, would consider how the matter stands with negative results. Something that is non liquet [not clear] can be the fruit of a year’s labour, of great scholarship, of profound effort… and yet everywhere there is a clamour only for results’
(The Book on Adler).