Talk About Teaching and Learning:
February 24, 2015, Volume 61, No. 24
Two Ideas for a Skeptical Pedagogy
Jeffrey Edward Green
What makes a good teacher, much like what makes a good education, is something about which reasonable people will disagree. Not only will different techniques work for different teachers, but there is simply no set standard for what constitutes an effective classroom experience. As a teacher, one is on one’s own to a certain extent, then, and must operate according to criteria that one deems to be best, even if there’s no final guarantee of this being the case. Given this skepticism about pedagogy, the theories of teaching I personally have found most inspiring and instructive have been those that have not supposed to provide final answers regarding the content of a good education, but rather have spoken to the general form good teaching might take in a world of profound diversity regarding questions of the good life and ultimate value. Two ideas in particular stand out.
From the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, I have long kept in mind the advice: “He who is a thorough teacher takes things seriously—and even himself—only in relation to his pupils” (Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 4, Maxims and Interludes, #63). Although somewhat elliptical, the passage’s basic idea seems to be that, no matter what your view on the content of a good education, one always has a choice as a teacher: to teach from the students’ perspective or some other perspective (such as your own), and that a good teacher is one who privileges the standpoint of his or her pupils. This might not be sage advice for all disciplines, but in the humanities and kindred social sciences—and in my own discipline of political theory—I think Nietzsche’s aphorism has a real relevance.
The clearest implication of the Nietzschean teaching on teaching is not to presuppose a professionalism or would-be professionalism in students. Most undergraduates I teach are never going to become political theorists or any other kind of political scientist. Even many graduate students in my classes are not necessarily going down a path of professionalization in my area of teaching and research. Recognizing this means pitching the material—and, just as important, selecting the material—with an eye toward connecting to the lived experiences of the actual students sitting in the room. The point, in other words, is not to bring students into the world of political theory but to bring political theory into their world: to share with them texts, ideas, concepts, arguments, and historical events that might inspire their own thinking and expand their own perspicacity regarding politics. Teaching in this way can be humbling, because it reduces what is teachable in one’s discipline, exposing some of what one takes to be vital and important as virtually irrelevant to a non-specialist. In the context of my specific discipline, given that politics is a seemingly inescapable feature of all individuals’ lives, in a large number of cases it is not difficult to make the case that a certain work is in fact germane to students’ lives. But that such a case needs to be made—that teachers should explain to students the value of what they are learning in terms other than the material’s relevance for a professional academic career—this seems to be the most basic message of Nietzsche’s dictum for a teacher in political theory.
Another main consequence of Nietzsche’s advice about privileging the perspective of one’s pupils is, as I see it, that a teacher should not let worries about making things too easy on the students interfere with what must be the main purpose of their education: that they learn something. For example, I always give handouts to my students summarizing the main points of the class for that day. To some, this might seem like excessive handholding, but seen from their perspective (as I envision it anyway), it’s better for them to have more information rather than less regarding what we’re trying to achieve. Keeping the main educational focus in view also means, I think, diminishing the importance of grading—e.g., not spending precious class time discussing the bureaucratic matters of the course.
The second idea that has influenced my teaching, and that seems especially well-suited to someone skeptical toward the science of pedagogy, comes from Max Weber. This is the view that teachers should recognize it is not their role to provide ideological lessons to their students (e.g., advocating which political party to support) but ought to leave questions of ultimate value to the students’ own determinations. Or, as Weber more forcefully put it, “the prophet and the demagogue do not belong on the academic platform” (Science as a Vocation). Weber’s insistence on the impropriety of teaching values in the classroom stemmed not only from his skepticism that there were final, scientifically-derived answers to such matters, but also from his view that the proper place for value instruction, should it occur, is outside the classroom in the public sphere where opposing political groups and leaders could compete for followings. Because the classroom in some sense keeps students as a captive audience, it is not the proper place, Weber thought, for ideological advocacy.
I generally abide by this Weberian notion that teachers must not engage in value instruction in the classroom but rather should convey facts and information, inspire students to develop their own ideas, and then subject those ideas to constructive criticism grounded on norms of consistency, clarity and originality. I recognize that there may be problems with this ideal, that it probably cannot be fully achieved, but I also think it can be realized in a relative way: even if one cannot be fully free of value instruction, one can still strive to engage in less rather than more of it. And, further, insofar as some ideological element is inescapable, one can try to be open and apologetic about one’s bias, rather than dogmatic. I should add, however, that I take Weber’s advice only with regard to my teaching. It does not apply to my written scholarship, which in my view is a proper place for ideological discussion free from the power imbalances of the classroom.
Taken together, both the Nietzschean and Weberian perspectives ask teachers to overcome themselves to some degree: privileging students’ perspectives over their own in selecting and pitching material and resisting the temptation to defend or rationalize their ideological preferences in the classroom. If such self-restraint evinces a healthy respect for skepticism regarding the content of a good education, it hopefully also does something more: namely, maximizes the chances that the classroom will be a place where students amass tools that allow them, on their own terms, to perceive reality with newfound subtlety and precision. And here it is worth remembering that the root meaning of the word theory, or theoria, is “to see a sight”—suggesting that the ultimate purpose of education in political theory and other related “theoretical” disciplines is not ideological at all, but eye-opening: the enablement of students to see more clearly, both about and through the subject matter, than they could prior to taking the course.
Jeffrey Edward Green is an associate professor of political theory in the political science department of SAS.
In 2013, he received Penn’s Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching by an Assistant Professor.
He is also a four-time recipient of a Distinction in Teaching Certificate from Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.