Black Mountain, NC. Thirty years ago, Bruce Wilshire lamented the state of higher education in The Moral Collapse of the University. In the desire to be professional and purified, faculty members, he argued, alienated students and obscured the central task of education. His critique has only ripened with time. Often times, I view students as an impediment to my success rather than the measure of my success. In desires for promotion, getting published, and advancing my career, students are necessary annoyances at best: couldn’t I be so much more productive if it weren’t for these pesky students turning in their half-hearted assignments, coming to class with their glazed over eyes? What matters is my personal success.

In her book of essays entitled What Are We Doing Here, the novelist Marilynne Robinson states, “How we think about ourselves has everything to do with how we act toward one another.” This reality underlies Wilshire’s thesis on education. Are students “little pitchers” as Professor Gradgrind describes in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, pitchers whom professors fill up with more information? Are students training computers to program or practical instruments to be fine-tuned? Are students on the right path but need a little guidance, or can they even be trusted to find the path? Marilynne Robinson suggests that how we think about and answer these questions has everything to do with how teachers and students will treat each other.

Education as Hospitality

According to Wilshire, education happens best when we can freely bring our whole selves to the classroom. Hospitality is the historic practice that aims to foster this mutual self-giving, as Christine Pohl explores in Making Room. It takes a space of welcome—where we can bring our whole selves to meet another whole self—where we can bring our depravity along with our dignity, where teacher and student alike can know and be known.

The Greek word for hospitality means simply “love of stranger.” Here’s a definition of “stranger” from Christine Pohl: “Strangers are people without a place, disconnected from life giving relationships and networks.” Is there a better way to describe a new college freshman? As a faculty member, how would I change my orientation to students if I recognized them as strangers requiring my love? I don’t mean to suggest I start adding things to my “to do” list and then I’ll be hospitable. Hospitality, as Amy Oden suggests, is not so much an act, but “an orientation that attends to otherness, listening and learning, valuing and honoring”—which I would submit is a fairly good descriptor of the teaching and learning process. In such a reality, the teacher plays the role of host: modeling welcome, attentiveness, humility, respect. Perhaps this is how a stranger can begin to be known and loved in a classroom.

The goal, then, is far greater than knowing oneself or passing course content. These are necessary steps along the way, but the purpose of education extends beyond them. Its goal, according to St. Augustine, is to properly order one’s loves. This Augustinian view is quite a contrast to the professionalized education that Wilshire describes as “a way of life which provides livelihood through the practice of a skill valued by society; this requires a ‘cognitive base’ of expert knowledge which can be acquired only through protracted training in a special field.” Augustinian professors, then, ought to have a different posture, one that is more holistic and humane. Namely, professors must order their own loves, not merely master the skills and cognitive base of expert knowledge. These latter aspects serve on the way to love, but they are not the proper end of education. We are not excused from love because of our profession. Esther Meek reminds us, “A reality where love is the core of all things is one attuned to be seen only through the eyes of love. Only when we love do we begin to attend, to listen, to understand, to know.” If we have all the knowledge in the world but have not love, the apostle Paul says, then we’re as annoying as a banging cymbal. It’s no wonder students wouldn’t want to listen to us.

A Few Modest Proposals

What might the hospitable posture of love look like in a modern classroom? It can begin with simple practices such as knowing students’ names. Some professors may teach in contexts where this is all but impossible, but in institutions oriented toward teaching, this simple practice is essential. I’ve found this especially the case with minority students. It’s hard to create hospitable environments when most of the white male authoritative figures they’ve encountered have been rough, or dismissive, or otherwise thoughtless of them as persons.

Perhaps a sharp distinction between work and life is a hindrance. Caring for students is not merely a student life problem; if we teach students, it is our problem, too. As Wilshire suggests, “To accept a professorship is to accept a caring role—whether one explicitly professes it or not (or even if one denies it).” Starting class over coffee or doughnuts may be just the thing to put the hardest students at ease. Hosting students in your home for a discussion or a dinner can be an opportunity for students to feel comfortable exposing their true opinions in the classroom. It’s an opening of a door to allow a student in who is a stranger, someone alienated by my advanced degree, fancy title, and professional status.

A larger way to foster a hospitable space is to celebrate entrances and departures. David Smith mentions one aspect of this in his book On Christian Teaching. He argues that the practice of ending a class with a final exam is counter-Christian. What we’re saying is that what ultimately matters is how well you perform. He invites us to consider what our classes would look like if our last class was not an exam but a celebration of all we learned and will go on to pursue?

Conclusion

If students are fellow lovers, then one of the teacher’s primary tasks is, as Mister Rogers suggests, to love what they’re doing and love it in front of people, for “love is at the root of all learning.” The love that I show for my subject invites fellow lovers into the journey of enjoyment. I know that is true for me. When I’m teaching on Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead to Foundations of Ministry students or Augustine’s Confessions to a spiritual formation class, I can feel myself coming alive and students (sometimes) follow along. And when I’m teaching some class that I’m bored with (I’m looking at you Administrative Ministry and Organization), I can feel the classroom shrink and eyes glaze over. In some ways, students’ interest levels are determined and shaped by my love for both them and the subject.

It seems odd here to turn to Mister Rogers as an exemplar of teaching in higher education, but the more I consider it, I think that’s right. (Though, full disclosure, I think he’s pretty much the exemplar of all good things). As his favorite children’s book The Little Prince suggests, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” The essential things are not student ratings or student performance or my own upward trajectory. What is essential, the one thing necessary, is that we love. Academics aren’t excused from love because we have advanced degrees.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Alex! I’m about to embark on (at least) four weeks of being my girls replacement teacher while their school is closed, so this was a serendipitous piece. I’m thinking I might start our “semester” with an age appropriate reading of your piece for my girls, to let them know we are in this together.

    • I’m sure I stole this from someone (I think On Christian Teaching by David Smith), but in the same way he argues that ending a class with an exam is counter-Christian, so beginning the semester with syllabus day is a counter-Christian practice. In essence, it says, “We’re here to get things done–namely, these things I set out. It’s your job to perform.” Rather, he attempts to establish relationships on the first day. I’ve tried this with “ice-breakers” or group discussion review if the class is building on previous content, etc, etc.

      I’ve found it’s helped build exactly what you’re desiring: a mutual relationship within which knowledge can be meaningfully pursued.

      I hope it goes well!

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