The teacher-guide and the education of souls

“Facts alone are wanted in life!” cries the aptly-named Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times. For Gradgrind, “education” occurred whenever his young pupils were lined up, “little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

We, of course, realize that there are many sorts of “facts,” and it little matters how many gallons of them one has unless they are facts really worth knowing: good, beautiful, and other useful sorts of knowledge. The role of the teacher, then, must consist in more than just helping his students along the path to knowledge, but also in guiding them towards the right path to begin with.

To anyone who desires to learn something, Socrates offers this dilemma in the Meno: How can you pursue knowledge without first knowing that you lack it, and how can you know that you lack that knowledge without first knowing it? Or, restated, how can you search for knowledge of which you are ignorant?

To be sure, there is some difference between “knowing a science” and “knowing of a science.” But to seek a particular science requires a certain amount of motivation, the sort of motivation which only comes with an awareness of the value of that science, which awareness in turn arises from experience. There therefore exists a gap between ignorance and knowledge, one which does not always fill itself.

It is in this gap that students can easily stray. Not all of the subjects which one might choose to study are of equal value, especially for those near the beginning of their education. In these times of “create your major” programs and college degrees composed largely of electives, the truth of a hierarchy of knowledge can sometimes be lost.

An attitude of emotivism in regard to both ethics and wisdom has pervaded much of higher education. We need not look far for a reminder of the importance of care in the pursuit of knowledge: Adam and Eve’s downfall came when they grasped after the wrong sort of knowledge, or at least took knowledge in the wrong way. Knowing little of what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil held, they acted blindly and failed to attain true wisdom. Likewise, a student, especially a high school or even college student, is often not the best judge of his own path.

At this point, an objection might be raised by the pedagogically minded: Student interest is critical to learning success, and if we would “force” students to study something which they have no interest in, it will be worse than teaching nothing at all. The fact is, though, that the enthusiasm so conducive to learning can be inspired for most worthy subjects, and there are several such subjects to choose from. Students must just be shown how worthy the questions posed by that subject are of their attention—how interesting, how elevated, how personally important—and they will be eager enough.

One advocate for these “higher studies” in the formation of the “genuine student” is the Roman historian Tacitus:

It was necessary not only to declaim in the schools of rhetoricians, or to exercise the tongue and the voice in fictitious controversies quite remote from reality, but also to imbue the mind with those studies which treat of good and evil, of honor and dishonor, of right and wrong (Dialogus, I.31).

Here, in the studies of “good and evil, of honor and dishonor, of right and wrong,” we have examples of the sort of things which should be learned by every student, regardless of his preferences or what contemporary culture considers “relevant.” Particularly apt for this goal are the liberal arts, especially philosophy, theology, and the humanities. During the “gap,” though, that time when students are both ignorant and, in many cases, ignorant of their ignorance, how can a student hope to lead himself along the best path, towards knowledge of the most important things? The only way to surely avoid an aimless education is through a guide.

Aware of this need, the poet Dante writes for himself a guide at every stage along his eschatological journey. Every Dante needs a Virgil, not only to show him the way, but also to nudge him to even begin. Much of the guide’s role lies in providing encouragement if the way grows difficult, an aspect which we see clearly towards the end of Virgil’s own portion of the journey, in Purgatorio XXVII.

When it becomes time for pilgrim-Dante to walk through a wall of flames, he draws back. Virgil, who knows that “dentre al foco” [into the fire] is the only way forward, attempts to persuade Dante with logical arguments, but these fail. He finally resorts to the lesser, although still true, motivation of Dante’s earthly love for the lady Beatrice: “Mark now, my son, / From Beatrice thou art by this wall / Divided” (Purgatorio, XXVII, 35-36). This device successful, Virgil leads the way into the flames:

He shook his forehead; and, “How long,” he said,
“Linger we now?” then smiled, as one would smile
Upon a child that eyes the fruit and yields.
Into the fire before me then he walk’d (XXVII.43-46).

Once on the other side, Virgil reveals to his charge that, up until this point, Dante’s soul has been driven by lesser goods, and it has been necessary for Virgil to drag him along. But now, having followed the path thus far, and been cleansed by the fire, Dante’s own soul is able to serve as a guide: “I, with skill and art, / Thus far have drawn thee. Now thy pleasure take / For guide. Thou hast o’ercome the steeper way” (XXVII.129-31).

By being led through the purging fire, Dante has been taught to love the higher things, much as those being dragged from Plato’s cave kicking and screaming until they come to love the light. In an education based upon the Dante-Virgil model, each student is formed into someone who is both learned and also eager for wisdom; he has been brought to love that of which he was once ignorant.

If the virtue particular to the guide is wisdom—the wisdom to see the good and how to lead others to it—we might say that the necessary virtue for the student is faith, faith that his guide will lead him aright. This is hardly blind faith, of course, and a student should select his teachers with diligence. In fact, if someone cannot trust his professors in this manner, that may be a sign that he is not at the right sort of school.

For once a student realizes that the education of his soul is a serious business, one not to be accomplished alone, he must give himself wholeheartedly into the hands of his teacher-guides. It is easy to see why the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard connects the role of a teacher with the role of a savior, a savior who both offers a way to the light and helps one to recognize the need for that light in the first place. And so, each student, lest he wander, must have faith in his guide, and each teacher-guide, lest he lead his charges astray, must remember that he is forming not just their minds but also their souls.

JACOB TEREUS is a Wyoming Catholic College graduate pursuing a master’s degree in classics at the University of Kentucky.

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