Whether Teachers Teach for the Sake of Their Students

[This is the second in a three-part series on liberal education: (1) Whether the purpose of a liberal arts college is to teach; (2) whether teachers at a liberal arts college teach for the sake of their students; (3) whether teachers at a liberal arts college are employees.  For background on the subject, see my post on Pieper’s book.  For a glimpse into the kind of enjoyment I hope this post offers, see my comments on the scholastic question format.]

Article 2: Whether the Faculty Teaches for the Sake of the Students

Objection 1.  It seems that teachers teach for the sake of the students.  If teachers did not teach for the sake of students, then their teaching would be for themselves.  But teaching is an activity directed toward others, not toward oneself.  Therefore, teachers teach for the sake of the students.

Objection 2.  It seems that an activity is for the sake of the one who benefits from the activity.  But teaching benefits students more than it benefits teachers.  Therefore, teachers teach for the sake of the students.

On the contrary, when A exists for the sake of B, B is better than A.  Consequently, if teachers exist for the sake of students, it will follow that students are better than their teachers.  But teachers are supposed to be superior to the ones they teach, at least in regard to the life of wisdom.  Therefore, teachers do not teach for the sake of the students.

I reply that, a part exists for the sake of the whole, and so every part of a liberal arts college carries on its activity for the sake of the college community.  Each formal part of a college has an activity that defines it as a part.  The faculty’s defining activity is to teach, that is, to live the intellectual life in such a way that students benefit from it.  But the faculty carries out this activity in order to benefit the entire college community, just as the heart supplies blood to the arteries not simply for the arteries’ sake but in order to benefit the entire body.  So the faculty’s service to the community is mediated, so to speak, by the students.

Because the good of the whole is the good of the part, the faculty’s defining activity is good for every part of a liberal arts college, namely for the faculty, the students, and the staff.  But the faculty’s teaching is good for each part in a different way, because the three parts of a liberal arts college differ in the way they share in the common good of the college.

Since the common good of the liberal arts community is a life of wisdom, and since the faculty are required to be above the students in their ability to live this life, the faculty share in the common good of a college directly and to a greater degree than the students.

Since the students are below the faculty in their ability to live a life of wisdom, they share in the common good of a college directly but to a lesser degree.

The staff is not defined in terms of how it lives the life of wisdom but in terms of other activities that make such a life possible for the faculty and students.  Consequently, the staff differs from faculty and students in that it shares in the college’s good indirectly.  It might happen to be the case that a staff member is the wisest, most learned person in the whole community, or it might be the case that a staff member has very little grasp of what “college” is all about.  The role of the staff as such does not decide to what degree staff members are capable of sharing in the common good of the college.  By its formal role, then, the staff shares in the college’s defining good indirectly and to an unspecified degree, although it is both fitting and useful for a liberal arts college if the staff share in the life of wisdom to a high degree.

Since the faculty share in the college’s common good directly and to a greater degree, their teaching—their activity for the sake of that common good—benefits themselves to a great degree and others to the degree they can receive it.

Reply to 1. The activity of teaching can described as directed toward teachers for three reasons.  First, since teachers and students are members of one community, the good of one is the good of the other.  So teaching is not directed toward others in the way that, for example, cooking food in a restaurant is good for customers, who stand outside the restaurant’s community.  Second, teaching is a fruit of study and contemplation, so teachers benefit directly from the activities that go into teaching.  Third, the very act of teaching and answering questions often prompts a teacher to achieve new insight not only for the students but also for himself.

Reply to 2. Experience shows that teachers do benefit more from their teaching than students do:  everyone who has taught says that he only deeply understood the subject when he began teaching it.  But what a student gains from the teaching may be greater in proportion to what the student already had without being greater absolutely.  To use the metaphor of physical travel, during a class the student may go a mile down the road and double his total distance traveled while the teacher goes three miles down the road but only adds a tenth to his total progress.

Reply to 3. As has been said, teachers do not teach only for the sake of students but for the sake of the entire college community.  This community includes the faculty and is better than the faculty taken by itself.  So the teachers teach for their own sake and for the sake of something better than themselves.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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