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Good evening, colleagues, friends, and students. It’s my pleasure to share with you tonight my so-called philosophy of teaching philosophy. Bear with me because I felt it necessary to prepare something to read, not only because it has become a quaint and lost art, but also because I do my thinking best when I am writing. At the outset, I would like to thank my friend and feminist mentor (as I like to call her), Natty Manauat, who made this gathering of philosophy teachers possible. I would also like to thank my good friends whose enthusiasm and generosity with their time are evident from their presence tonight. Finally, I would like to thank the philosophy majors— especially those I’ve had the pleasure to teach—because I am not exaggerating when I say that they are the best batch I’ve ever handled. What do we mean by the word “teaching”? In its strict, technical sense, it means being employed by an educational institution primarily to give instruction, i.e. to convey knowledge or ideas. I don’t suppose this is the definition we have in mind, because if it were so, we don’t really have much to talk about tonight. I am sure that the sense of “teaching” we are interested in is somehow related to a calling, a famous model for which is Plato’s view of it as being a midwife of truth. (The soul, according to Plato, already has prior knowledge of the Forms, something it has forgotten when it was born into the World of the Senses. The teacher does not really say anything new, so much as he or she helps the student remember the soul’s original knowledge.) The association between femininity and being a midwife is striking. The educator, I believe, fulfils a feminine role as well: that of the mother. Between mother and father, it is usually the mother who is the first teacher. The teacher’s role is not only intellectual, but more importantly, manual. It involves intensive guiding and mentoring, which are not merely cognitive processes but arduous emotional and spiritual work. So much is taught that is beyond the facts and issues transmitted inside a classroom: In fact, the most important things are conveyed and learned outside its walls. It is for this reason that the effective teacher prioritizes not her own research interests or writing, but the education of others. The mere fact that her work is other-oriented means that it is already one of the highest forms of service, perhaps second only to parenthood. Now if we are to define “teaching” in this way, many professors employed by educational institutions would not really be teachers. Nor would some of the most well-known philosophers necessarily be the best “teachers.” In fact, they were some of the worst. (I have in mind, for example, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein). One of my former colleagues had once insisted on the distinction between philosopher and philosophy teacher: He said that one was not necessarily the same as the other, implying that the first was somehow more elevated or important than the latter. To this I would disagree. I believe that teaching is an art and skill which itself cannot be taught, which
nonetheless can be cultivated, proficiency in which is often a matter of temperament, and which is certainly no less important than the work of the philosopher. However, it is clear that being an excellent teacher and an excellent philosopher constitutes something of a dilemma. It seems to me that given the materials of the mind and the varied demands on one’s time, one ends up prioritizing—in fact, even choosing—one over the other. At this point, I hope my audience is starting to see why I have entitled this short piece “Why I Am Not a Teacher,” at least in the sense that I just outlined. This does not necessarily mean that I am a philosopher. Literally, I am an associate professor of philosophy at De La Salle University. But am I a teacher? I think of myself primarily as a writer and a researcher. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t planned to be a teacher. Ten years ago when I was looking for a job in the mass media, sending my résumé to newspapers and magazines, I got a call from Ms. Manauat, my former thesis adviser. As someone who had written her undergraduate thesis on feminism, I was one of the handful of people she could think of who could handle a then-new course called gender studies. When I joined the Philosophy Department, I was advised to go to graduate school, as the job required a graduate degree. Ten years later, here I am. Perhaps teaching is something I do that is incidental to my true calling. For any artist, writer, or even philosopher, surely the experience of creating the master work—while it may be an end in itself—may be enhanced or completed by sharing oneself. So even though I can’t say that teaching is what I do best, some of my most fulfilling experiences occurred in the context of my profession. It gives me so much joy to share with others the books that I love, the thinkers I admire, the issues I’m pondering. It is no secret that I can get quite emotional in defense of the existentialists. When I first read Walden by Henry David Thoreau, I knew I just had to form a Great Works triad and design a course around it. Since high school, I’ve been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and it delights me to be able to introduce my students to these stories in the course of our discussion on logic and critical thinking. As a matter of fact, in my Introduction to Philosophy classes, we just finished watching the first episode of Sherlock, the BBC series which is a modernized version of the 19th-century classic texts. Some of my students have become fans of the bromance between Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch (an effect I did not intend). And don’t get me started on the occasions when I got to discuss poetry in class. I guess my philosophy of teaching can be summed up by Joseph Campbell’s famous statement, Follow your bliss. I think that if you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, in accordance with the natural energies of your so-called daemon, and somehow your work or profession is based on that, then everything else follows: Satisfaction, success, and who knows, maybe even fame. I didn’t set out to be a teacher. I just decided to give of myself in the name of what I love. In our discipline, one need not be particularly extraverted, good-looking, or even bookish. All you need is to love philosophy. Now that I have explained why I am not a teacher, I would like to take this rare opportunity to expound on a couple of perhaps unpopular sentiments which I strongly believe in.
One is, It’s okay to play favorites. In fact, I do it all the time. I pick which students are worth my time, and frankly can’t care less about those who similarly can’t care less about the subject. My energy is limited, and I hope I sound less arrogant than matter-of-fact when I say that being in my classroom is a privilege, not a right. I am paid to instruct, but not to “teach” in the special sense I have outlined here. I can do the minimum that is required of me, and sadly, that is what people who are satisfied with mediocrity are content to be doing, which is all very well for them. I believe the teacher-student relationship is a soul mate relationship; in fact, it is one of the five primary relationships identified by Confucius. Just as one cannot love everybody, so can’t one be loved by everybody. I believe in concentrating my energies on the worthy. Teaching, after all, is not proselytizing. I don’t think you could or should convert a resistant or indifferent person into a lover of wisdom. My theory is that if you can get them interested, they’re already interested in the first place. In this sense, and it is a point on which a colleague of mine and I constantly disagree, one can’t really teach anything. Teaching is not a mission. You don’t set out there to convince anybody of a cause. Like-minded souls naturally find each other. In short, I teach some people. The rest, I instruct. The other somewhat unpopular sentiment I’d like to mention is the rather traditionalist view that the subject-matter-centered approach is superior to the so-called student-oriented, sometimes called constructivist, paradigm, at least given the context of Lasallian culture. Emerson said it best: First we read, then we write. It would not be a facile generalization to say that so much of what passes for education nowadays assumes that one’s audience has a limited attention span. So teaching becomes a kind of performance, drawing on appearance more than substance. Given our trimestral culture and the new media that are available, the traditional classroom discussion is supplanted by a sound bite or a video clip. Lectures have become unpopular. Hardly anybody reads anymore, much less writes. The extemporaneous spiel takes the place of the well-thought-out argument. Unless we take our time with the subject matter, taking advantage of the infrastructures of expertise that are in place for a reason, we are on our way to encouraging a generation of illiterates. Or at very least, the 21st-century version of the Sophists. With this, I end my speech. Thank you for listening!
/Essay read for Prof. Natividad Manauat’s practicum class, 2 Feb. 2012, Yuchengco 508, De La Salle University
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