I spent my first seven years in public education. Prior to moving to a private Classical Christian school in Roanoke, Virginia, I taught history, psychology, philosophy, economics, government, and civics at three different high schools. No matter what the subject was, I believed what was most valuable for students to understand was not readily available in their textbook. I knew that being able to recall information and transfer it onto a piece of paper called a test was not the most important part of their education. However, knowing that and actually doing something about it are two totally different things. What was it then they were supposed to know? What did I want from them?
I became a man on a mission. I was determined that my students would understand that education was something absolutely vital to their life and well-being. They had to understand the big picture before they would care about how many people there were in the House of Representatives. Wooing a generation of despondent teens into the “great conversation” was not as difficult as one might think. Less than half way through my first year of teaching I began putting quotes on the board every day and having student’s journal about them. It took about ten minutes, but the discussions were amazing. I put quotes on the board such as, “Be happy. It’s one way of being wise”; “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to have invented him,” etc. Then, I began challenging them with more difficult ones, like “Freedom is the recognition of necessity” or “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.” The quotes that spawned these discussions did several things in my classroom. First, they raised more questions than answers, which made the class interesting. Second, the conversations created an opportunity for me to interact with my students on topics that mattered to them, thus creating a vibrant relational dynamic in the classroom. It allowed all students to be heard on issues that did not necessarily have a clear answer, which eliminated the perception that whoever knew the most information was the “smartest.” Third, the dialogue gave me a bridge by which to cross into deep and meaningful areas related to the content I was teaching. Students began to think beyond the superficial and ask hard questions.
I learned a great deal from my students in those journal discussions. And, interestingly enough, I found that my class was turning into a series of rich, meaningful dialogues. The content was just the means to direct the conversation. I remember one day we were doing a unit on Africa. About the time we were studying The Republic of the Congo a report came out that there was still cannibal activity going on. I randomly threw out the question, “Why is cannibalism wrong?” I could not get a solid answer from anyone. I offered extra credit if anyone could tell me. They all “knew” it was wrong, but no one could justify it. These kinds of conversations were fire starters. They burned for days. Kids were mad at me and determined to give an answer that made sense. Perhaps they would soon be stopping this barbarism… so I prayed. I was loving it!
The students began to beg me to have extended discussion days where we would take a topic and have an open forum about it. On occasion I would cave in and do it. The most important lesson I learned from these early days was that students care about what really matters. After all, as Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know.” More lightbulbs began to go off for me and I decided I would continue the conversations with my students, and whoever else would come, after school in a Philosophy Club. I only taught ninth and tenth graders so I thought maybe a few faithful students who felt sorry for the new guy (me) would show up. However, word spread, fliers were made, and about sixty students showed up by the third meeting. Sixty students on their own time to sit around and talk about Descartes! What was going on?! By the way, what really shocked me was the diversity in the room. A wide spectrum of ethnicities, religions, and social groups showed up. It was heated at times, but always interesting. Sometimes I had to make students go home!
The next year I started every class the same way. Everyone would have to attempt to answer four questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? How do I tell right from wrong? What happens when I die? It did not matter if I was teaching history or psychology this is where we began. How they answered these questions would help them acquire a frame of reference for their own understanding as well as the perspective of those we read. This was the way I hooked my students and sold education to them. Education was about finding truth, doing right, finding who we are, and what we want to become. Working through the differences, I told them, was an integral part of what it means to be educated.
To be sure, there were numerous problems along the way; too many to enumerate here. As one can guess I was at least controversial, which made things interesting. However, what defined my classroom—the spirit of inquiry—led me to explore other philosophies of education. I eventually found people like Mortimer Adler and others in the Classical tradition who understood the value of the liberal arts. They believed, as I do, that teaching for understanding means getting at the heart of who we are as human beings. It also means teaching, at its best, aims at the acquisition of wisdom, not necessarily high marks or entrance into esteemed universities. Seem too optimistic? Ethereal? After all, what is wisdom anyway? Sounds like a good Essential Question!