Fond and Fearful Memories

Believe me, I’m keenly aware of the problems you’re facing, and I thank God every day I’m not just starting out, as you are, in the college teaching business. May Heaven guard and defend you. For “business” is precisely what it’s become, at least at big universities like mine. Assessments, outcomes, credit productions, research dollars—only what can be counted counts.

I’ve not done a careful survey, mind you—in part because surveys are merely more numbers!—but I have little doubt you’re right: truly maieutic teaching has been all but swamped by the transmission of facts and the promulgation of politically fashionable —isms. About all you can do, if you wish to survive and make tenure while remaining true to principles, is to hunker down, say your prayers, and prepare for each and every class as if it were your last and as if your work were being judged, not by the students or some mindless dean whose sole concern is warm bodies, but by Saint Socrates himself.

You might also take some consolation from knowing that there are still a few real teachers out there, or at least a few compromised and self-confessed pretenders who gratefully remember having been taught by a genuine master and regret how much has been lost. In case you didn’t see it, I would highly recommend you take a look at an article that appeared this past May in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Fond and Fearful Memories of an Influential Professor”, by Ellen Handler Spitz. Spitz is an art professor at the University of Maryland, and her article is a deeply moving tribute to her Columbia University philosophy mentor, Mary Mothersill, who died earlier this year. I couldn’t help but think of my own “elitist” and “quirky” undergraduate mentor, John Crossett, whom I have mentioned before in this forum. Indeed the parallels are a little spooky.

“She was unabashedly elitist, whereas today’s professors cringe at the idea of harboring even the remotest trace of snobbery…. These many decades hence, I marvel at the brilliance of her pedagogy. Before the days of political correctness, and predicated on a strong, quirky personality, her teaching style was intended to hand down a particular canon derived from her own education—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume…. She wanted, openly and boldly, to implant her own passions, predilections, and prejudices in her students. Her pedagogy relied on aura, respect, deference, and even dread…. To whiners and shirkers, Mary would bark, ‘Get cracking!’ She did not suffer fools gladly. Nor sloth….

“In a musty aerie on the highest floor of Milbank Hall, we studied the dialogues of Plato. Mary had chosen Hippias Minor, the text in which Socrates poses intricate questions about lying. Pacing back and forth in the narrow space, she would gaze pensively at an apparent vacuity or out the window for long stretches, and the silence that packed the room was thunderous. No other teacher I had ever studied with behaved this way; it was as though she were modeling for us the very processes of reflection—rethinking for herself every argument from start to finish. As she interrogated us about the text, no step was glossed over or hurried. There we sat, on our hard wooden chairs, trapped in varying degrees of puzzlement, forced to inhabit the wretchedness of our not knowing, desperately longing for closure, wishing for deliverance from the awkward void she refused to fill. For Mary brooked no quick solutions, no leap to a ‘bottom line’. Leaving us in the limbo of our own bafflement and the text’s apparent unintelligibility, she bided her time until, at last, someone broke the unbearable silence. From this experience, repeated weekly and relentlessly, I learned and relearned, or tried to learn, that true understanding requires patience … and that intellectual work must be done only by you yourself—it can never be done for you by anyone else….

“Rarely did [Mary] intervene or save a student; yet she always listened attentively. Unlike some professors of today, she was not indifferent. Not saving you in class did not signify abandonment. It was a means of compelling you to find out how to save yourself. It was for this that I revered her: for making us sit there and face and then push the limitations of our own understanding, for unwaveringly committing herself to teaching us philosophy as she believed it should be taught, and even for her sheer arrogance (justified in my mind by years of erudition and achievement and also by what I sensed as a smoldering intellectual passion).

“No mass-produced Internet pedagogy will ever give us a Mary Mothersill. Nowadays professors seek to be receptive to students, not dictatorial. We try to cover acres of ground to compensate for what students have not previously learned. We even valorize what formerly would have been deemed mistakes. We forswear severity and scorn; we try to be nice. We try not to teach in order to reproduce ourselves, encouraging our students to ‘think independently’. But we have lost something. As we mourn the passing of our teachers, we should remember what they gave us, each in his or her own way. And reclaim it. Not to imitate it, but to build anew on whatever was good and effective in it, for theirs was a pedagogy that, with all its faults, eschewed shortcuts and transported some of us on unforgettable, everlasting journeys into the intoxicating center of the life of the mind” (The Chronicle Review, Volume 54, Issue 35, p. B28).

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