This week is the time to show appreciation for the teachers in our lives. The official Teacher Appreciation Day is May 8, but the entire week may be set aside. Given the challenges we face in education at all levels, it is important to acknowledge those persons central to the process. Despite administrative bloat and the rise of the online university with its master course models and other mechanisms for automating learning, the teacher remains pivotal.
Classical and medieval education centered on the tutorial. This mentoring model worked with small cohorts of students who were guided through multiple disciplines over the course of years, sometimes by the same person. At the Abbey of St. Victor in the twelfth century, students went through the seven liberal arts under the steady hand of a single master, most likely Hugh of St. Victor until his death in 1144.
The teacher was to embody virtue as well as communicate it, and students traveled thousands of miles to study with the best. Bernard of Clairvaux sent a letter to Hugh of St. Victor recommending a promising Italian named Peter as a student. After studying with Hugh and probably also Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard went on to become bishop of Paris and write the standard textbook for theology.
With the rise of mass education, the tutorial model has been replaced by models that accommodate higher numbers of students. The classroom lecture became the standard way to automate the educational process for most of the twentieth century. This was especially the case in colleges after the explosion of enrollments in the wake of the G.I. Bill. In the classroom, the teacher became the expert whose task was to distill a body of knowledge through interaction with primary sources or by communicating the contents of the curriculum and its texts. The teacher as mentor was woven into the teacher as expert.
After the emergence of developmental psychology in the 1960s, public schools entered the age of self-actualization, with the teacher forming part of a team that included the school counselor. Under this model, the teacher became a social worker who facilitated holistic growth. The mentor model did not go away entirely; rather, it remained in the form of “individualized learning plans” in the context of larger class settings. Class sizes rose steadily, with some teachers facing more than thirty students in a high school class while at the same time being required to individualize assignments so as to accommodate diverse learning styles.
Anyone who has worked in education for any length of time knows that the models keep changing. And yet, the more they change, the more they stay the same. The educational process may have one of two goals: to produce citizens, or to produce workers. America has never decided which goal is the more important. Do we want to turn out citizens who understand the history of the nation and can function as a morally responsible electorate? Or do we want to turn out workers who can enter the workforce immediately and contribute to economic development? The answer is always “yes” to both. In practice, we swing between one pole and the other. Currently, we are swinging away from the citizen pole, which is grounded in the humanities, and toward the worker pole, which is invested in STEM and vocational education.
Though we learned from the economic crisis of 2009 that even highly skilled workers, such as Wall Street traders, are still moral agents, we have yet to do much about it. And the humanities must take their share of the blame for moving away from the moral ground of education. The days of a liberal like Lionel Trilling defending the moral seriousness of the novel as a social mechanism by which one confronts the challenges of the age seems lost—or at least to have retreated to the margins.
Yet through it all, the teacher remains central. As Trilling noted, teaching stands in direct relation to culture. Teachers retain the key role of cultural transmission, and we must allow them this role. This means, at minimum, removing the layers of bureaucracy that plague them. Between lesson plans for the class, individualized learning plans for particular students, paperwork accounting for professional development, and a host of other forms, the time teachers actually spend on teaching is shrinking. The same is true with respect to online education, which is more concerned with the architecture of a course than with its content.
I recall a formative teacher in my own life. During my senior year of high school, I was part of a twentieth-century humanities class of about fifteen students. We read Paul Tillich, Igor Stravinsky, and T. S. Eliot, among others. Our teacher, Ms. Serafini, would become the voice of the person we were reading. She would seek to defend that person’s position as though it were her own. At times, I asked her to reveal her own views, but she refused. She wanted students to wrestle with the material on its terms, not hers. Upon graduation, Ms. Serafini finally granted my wish in the form of a letter explaining her position about God, which she handed to me after I had marched. Though she retained a firm belief in God, she was largely agnostic about the identity of this God, in light of her study of world religion.
As a young Christian, I learned from Ms. Serafini that I could disagree with my teachers and still have great affection for them. Regardless of our starting points, we could together explore these texts and learn from them. Despite all the changes in education, the teacher remains the single most important variable, and any educational model that denies this fact will end up de-humanizing students.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.