I have written before, quite a few blogs ago I think, about what a difference in someone’s life a teacher can make. I spoke of the great educators Lou Pengi, Zinieda Sprowles, my teachers in New Hope, Pennsylvania, or, at the college level, Philip Lockhart, Leon Fitts and Robert Sider of Dickinson College. I might, too, have spoken of my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, or even my kind and gentle elementary school choir teacher, Mr. Schaeffer.
Yet, fond as I shall ever be of them, I don’t want to speak about my own teachers here; rather, I want to speak about a conversation that I had with my friend, the philologist, whose conferences, if you read this blog regularly, you already know I sometimes crash as a fifth-wheel pseudo-philologist, as a poetaster is to a poet. That self-same philologist is in fact also a teacher (actually a professor) but as he is my contemporary and friend, I have, of course, never taken a class with him. That said, he and I often consult about his courses, for he is, I would say, a dedicated teacher. He is also a dedicated educator. He spends a lot of time educating his students, whether in or out of the classroom. Yet he is also a teacher, and as such he and I, as I was saying, converse about the material for the class, the author he might be reading and, especially this time of year, about the content of his syllabus.
Recently the question of educational motivation came up: how can he motivate his less-than-excited students to grasp not only the content of his course but, more particularly, their entire education? He explained it this way: he is more concerned about the student understanding why in fact he or she has come to college at all than the details of Ciceronian rhetoric—though he is concerned with that, especially these days when students seem to come to university so ill-prepared rhetorically and historically.
Thus it was that we sat on his porch, enjoying a glass of wine and conversing about whether it would be a good idea to mention something in the syllabus—an aspirational statement beyond the normal “Goal of the Course” but filed under that heading on the syllabus—or whether it is better to let that emerge on its own during the course. He has, in the past, always chosen the latter option. He doesn’t believe in what he calls “over-leading” the student (which he insists is akin to “leading the witness” in a court of law). He wants the students’ love of learning to emerge organically, naturally. But this time I tried to convince him: “Put in something aspirational, just to get them thinking of your unstated goal right off the bat.”
We debated a long time. I suggested he insert something like, “The goal of this course is to master Ciceronian style and understand better the context of the speech (for he is reading a Ciceronian speech with the class in Latin) and also to better understand what a real education means, for enlarges upon the importance of the education of Caelius [the person focused on in Cicero’s speech] as a vital component of his defense.” Of course, he immediately corrected the split infinitive which I had put in only to distract him, for I knew he would fixate on the grammar rather than what I was proposing.
As things are, however, I am not sure what he will do. I hope he puts in some kind of aspirational statement, for it would be a terrible thing, I think, to go to college just to get a job and not an education. Isn’t education, after all, what one goes off to the university to get? I think that it is an employment agency, after all, that one actually goes to when seeking a job: “the goal of this agency is to get you a job.” Yes, that fits. “The goal of this course is to prevent you from being a driveling know-nothing.” Yes, that’s what he needs to add. I think I’ve got it now.