Sometimes, in moments of unexpected pedagogical turbulence, I offer penitent students the opportunity to earn extra credit by reflecting on an essay by one of my old teachers: What a Student Owes His Teacher, by James V. Schall, S.J. I have an unusual attachment to that essay, because reading it invariably puts me back in Government 117, Fr. Schall’s “Elements of Political Theory” class. The reminiscence is bittersweet, though, because unfortunately I imagine myself trying desperately to avoid Fr. Schall’s gaze—and more importantly, his Socratic questioning. I imagine it that way because it happened that way: I often skipped the reading in Fr. Schall’s class. What a Student Owes His Teacher is in fact a catalog of ways I fell short in that class, and he did me the great service of calling me on it.
Such is the influence that the best teachers have on us, even many years later. Father Schall died in 2019, just before I began teaching at The Heights, but I am quite sure I have spent more time thinking about him over the last three years than I spent in his classroom. And he’s far from the only teacher in that category; I count about a dozen. I think of Ms. Bush, who taught me to write; and Herr Doktor LaGrande, who taught me so much English grammar by teaching me German. Fathers Hentz and Walsh were both crucial to my conversion; and Fr. Walsh not only taught Biblical literature but trained us daily in the central importance of the moral imagination. Several law professors were kind enough to teach challenging electives in legal and moral philosophy during the otherwise-superfluous third year of law school; I think of them every time I read Plato or Aristotle with my students. I have been blessed with so many excellent teachers, and I cannot shake the feeling that I owe them my best effort now that I’m teaching. How should I make sense of that? To put it as Fr. Schall might have, what does a teacher owe his teachers?
Obviously, I owe them gratitude. Because I am old and they were older, most have passed away, so I’m glad to have settled this particular account with most of them before it was too late. But there is something about becoming a teacher that has sharpened my appreciation of all they taught me. I feel not just grateful, but obliged to them. Why?
Plato, who knew a thing or two about having good teachers, suggests one model in his Cave Allegory (Republic, Book VII). He famously imagines a cave in which all the inhabitants are confined in such a way that they see only shadows of reality but suppose the shadows to be real. A person who has been liberated from his confinement and “reluctantly dragged” up and out of the cave by “an instructor” will also be freed from his illusions about the shadows in the cave. Plato, still smarting over the execution of Socrates in 399 B.C., imagines that if the undeceived escapee went back into the cave to free others, he would be ridiculed and even put to death. Nonetheless, Plato says his notional republic should compel those liberated by education to “descend to human affairs” back in the cave, because that is the reason they were educated in the first place.
There’s a lot to this, and I hate to relapse into lawyerly quibbling, but I have questions. To begin with, note that Plato alleges that there was some sort of quid pro quo here: we teach you now on condition that you will teach others later. With one exception, this was simply not part of the deal with any of my great teachers. (I am especially confident, for example, that Fr. Schall never thought of me as a future teacher; in his class I was barely a student.) Note also that in Plato’s story it is the state that first teaches and then demands teaching in return. There is, therefore, a symmetry in this transaction that is very much like the repayment of a debt. But the obligation I’m trying to pin down is what I owe my teachers, not my schools and certainly not the civil authorities of my birthplace. Plato has almost nothing to say about that part. There is an “instructor” in the Cave Allegory—tellingly easy to overlook—but he neither expects nor receives anything from his students except resistance and complaint (a small but realistic detail).
It is true, as Tom Cox said recently, that we carry all of our best teachers into the classroom with us, and no doubt we hope that our students will carry some part of us out of the classroom with them. But I at least do not hope especially that they will carry their learning into future classrooms. I want them to carry that learning everywhere they can use it—to classrooms, yes, but also to clinics, courtrooms, and confessionals, as their respective vocations dictate. I expect my logic students to use logic, but I don’t particularly care whether any of them ever teach it.
John Quincy Adams was probably our best-educated president, in part because he spent several years of his childhood living in France with great men like his father and the inimitable Dr. Franklin. As a young man he was not always humble about this. His mother Abigail, in London with John after the revolution ended, heard about the teenage John Quincy’s hauteur from her sister in Massachusetts, and she penned a letter of maternal reproach:
If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect that you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world and obtaining knowledge of mankind than any of your contemporaries. That you have never wanted a book, but it has been supplied to you. That your whole time has been spent in the company of men of literature and science. How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.[†]
On this view, it is the privilege of having had great teachers that obliges us to strive for the same high standards from which we have benefited.
This I find nearer the mark. I don’t hope to repay my teachers so much as I hope not to disappoint them; not to be ashamed if and when I see them again within the communion of saints. (I hope we’ll all be there, and if so I trust one or two will be surprised!) As in the Parable of the Talents, our teachers may be gone, but their work must continue; and it can only continue if we make the best possible use of what they have given us. In this way of imagining things, we are the talented understudies of Broadway legend; the unsung backup quarterbacks who find ourselves called upon to do great things simply because there is no one else available to do them. We pursue our vocation not to repay those who have left the action, but to advance their great work for the benefit of those who need it now—who need us now.
There is a nice parallel here with the vocation of parenting. As parents, we give ourselves completely to our children. We don’t do that to repay our parents—though we are grateful, certainly, for the parental love we have received. Still less do we do it in the hope that our children will somehow, someday, repay us. No, we give ourselves to our children because we love them. We love them as we have been loved, but as a wise friend has told me, “Acts of love do not beget reciprocity or obligation, they are invitations to imitation.” If we are very lucky as parents, there may be many branches of which we are the vine. If we are very lucky as teachers, there may be students who will one day do this in memory of us.
So what do we, as teachers, owe our teachers? In a sense, the debts we owe are so great that they are very nearly everything we have; so great that we cannot even think about the question except in the terms and categories those great teachers have given us.
But in another sense, and I think a deeper sense, we couldn’t possibly owe them anything, because framing it that way would betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what they were doing. They were not just giving us deposits of truth for safekeeping, in the expectation that we would deposit them elsewhere. Nor were they indulging us by letting us run up some sort of cosmic tab that we would pay off later. They were rather walking us home—home to the Teacher to whom we owe everything. They remain present to us as we continue the journey with new walkers.
[†] Quoted in David McCullough, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (2017), at 118. Original text of the full letter can be found here; the quoted section comes from the end of the letter.
Related Inspiration for Teachers: Articles and Podcasts
Tom Cox wrote an article on Seneca’s Advice to the Teacher
Joe Bissex joined us on the podcast to discuss Humility and Teaching
Rich Moss delivered the keynote from our most recent conference: Why Teach? An Introduction to the Teaching Vocation
A podcast on The Teacher as Liberal Artist
Mr. de Vicente offers Guidance for Aspiring Teachers in a podcast.