Professors Don’t Teach If Students Don’t Learn the Truth

Discussing St. Thomas Aquinas’s love of teaching, Josef Pieper writes:

Teaching does not consist in a man’s making public talks on the results of his meditations, even if he does so ex cathedra before a large audience. Teaching in the real sense takes place only when the hearer is reached—not by dint of some personal magnetism or verbal magic, but rather, when the truth of what is said reaches the hearer as truth. Real teaching takes place only when its ultimate result—which must be intended from the start—is achieved: when the hearer is “taught.” And being taught is something else again from being carried away, and something else again from being dominated by another’s intellect. Being taught means to perceive why this is so.

One can learn much without being taught, but no one can teach without another learning from them. That teaching simply doesn’t happen unless someone learns something from the teacher—no matter how refined, sophisticated, or accomplished the teacher happens to be—should go without saying, even if it is sometimes gainsaid. I’ve heard too many colleagues over the years complain that their students won’t learn: “I taught them all this great stuff, but they didn’t bother to learn any of it. What’s the point?” What, indeed! This lament is particularly common during final exams, when the absence of learning is painfully evident and, to be fair, when a teacher’s patience is understandably depleted. I’ve thought it myself, even if I didn’t say it aloud. This sentiment is wrongheaded despite its popularity.

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Of course, students are responsible for learning: they must go to class, pay attention, read, study, memorize details, and practice relevant exercises. Because not all students do this, not all students can be expected to learn. If students put in the requisite effort, and my experience suggests that many do, they should learn something, but only on condition that they’ve been taught something. If they don’t learn, despite doing what is reasonably expected of them, the failure is not theirs—at least not primarily. If no one learns anything from the teacher, it is probably because the teacher didn’t teach anything; such a teacher is no teacher at all. Failed teachers shouldn’t complain that students didn’t learn what they taught; they should complain that they failed to teach their students, and hopefully amend their pedagogy accordingly, if not change careers altogether. The presumption that students don’t learn despite being taught misrepresents the practice of teaching as well as its basic meaning. If no one learns in a class, the teacher did not teach, even if his public talks were based on scholarly meditations.

Admittedly, this is all rather exaggerated. Students retain something, even from bad teachers, and teachers teach something, even to weak students. Being human, teachers and students are neither wholly good nor wholly bad; we’re all somewhere in between. Nonetheless, the point remains: genuine teaching demands that the students receive and assimilate something from the teacher. It’s a two-way street.

What is Taught Must Be True
Teaching doesn’t only involve students receiving content from a teacher; the content must also be true. That teaching has something to do with the truth is much less taken for granted than my first proposition that students must learn, though it should be widely understood, and perhaps even more so. Indeed, that’s in essence what the word “teaching” means.

As St. Augustine puts it in The Teacher, only fools would send their children to school to listen to some teacher’s opinions, unless, of course, those opinions also happen to be true. But it’s not enough for teachers to speak truthfully; students must also apprehend the truth being taught: “When the teachers have explained by means of words all the disciplines they profess to teach, even the disciplines of virtue and of wisdom, then those who are called ‘students’ consider within themselves whether truths have been stated. They do so by looking upon the inner Truth, according to their abilities. That is therefore the point at which they learn.”

The point of going to school is not to hear a teacher think aloud, but to come to think the correct things oneself. Teaching is not an exercise in sophistical speechifying, as if clever words are worthwhile whether they refer to something real and true or not. Teaching communicates something true or it doesn’t happen at all. If truthful, the teacher’s words guide students to the inner discovery of the truth. Students learn when they grasp truth, not falsehood. Students may come to only a portion of the truth, but they arrive at even that modest destination only when they can appropriate it for themselves, i.e., when they’ve understood. Rather than simply accepting the truth, the student who has been taught perceives why it is true.

We can’t deny that there is some other sort of activity resembling teaching by which students are likewise carried somewhere—maybe through “verbal magic”—but not to the truth. Having an advanced degree doesn’t prevent a teacher from being wrong or incompetent, even if well-intentioned. Moreover, being carried somewhere other than toward the truth might even be accompanied by a rationalization, but any attempt to justify falsehood will not satisfy the truth-seeker. The untrue destination of pseudo-teaching might involve clever justification but not genuine understanding, because falsehood or nothingness lacks being.

The Teacher Must Know the Student
I’m reminded of Socrates’s opening question to his young friend, Phaedrus, in Plato’s Phaedrus: “My dear Phaedrus, where have you been and where are you going?” Phaedrus is young, cultured, a bit of a dilettante, and, above all, a lover of all speeches but a master of none. He listens gladly, especially to sophisticated people, but he lacks the ability to discern truth and falsehood in what they say. As a result, he too often listens to the wrong people.

Ostensibly, Socrates’s question simply asks him where he was and where he’s headed (it turns out Phaedrus was with one of those clever speechmakers, Lysias, and plans on taking a walk to admiringly review the script of one of Lysias’s particularly reprehensible works), but the question is also spiritual and pedagogical: In what have you been immersed: truth or falsehood, goodness or evil, beauty or ugliness? And where will you go from here: towards more truth or more untruth? Will you finally turn away from falsehood for the sake of the truth, or might you turn your back on the truth for the sake of the apparent benefits of parroting the fashionable nonsense of the day? These are questions for all students, and for all teachers, too, since they are just more advanced students. Teaching—real and fake, good and bad—takes us somewhere, if we follow. The question is, where? Teachers need to be more thoughtful about where they’re going, and students more careful about who is leading them and in what direction.

Let me return to Josef Pieper. He continues: “Teaching therefore presupposes that the hearer is sought out where he is to be found. Thus teaching implies proceeding from the existing position and disposition of the hearer.” The teacher must reach the actual student. That, too, is obvious, but what it means may not be: the teacher must be oriented in a non-trivial way to the particularities of the student; the teacher must know the student well enough to prepare that person for learning.

This seems to me to be exactly what Plato models with his representation of Socrates.  Socrates doesn’t deliver generic lectures; rather, he speaks with his interlocutors on their terms. In the Symposium, Alcibiades accuses Socrates of always making the same dumb points with the same tired old words. That’s exactly right—and to Socrates’s credit. He speaks to someone by considering the specific things that person is concerned with, but he uses language anyone can follow to arrive at conclusions everyone can grasp. He doesn’t change his points because the truth never changes. Interlocutors change, but not the truth. The beautiful irony is that, by addressing the particularities of his interlocutors, Socrates addresses universal issues in ways that are meaningful to everyone.

The genius of Plato is that his dialogues speak to us all, as humans, and they have done so for over two thousand years. He does this by meeting students—both those in the dialogues and us, the readers—where they stand. There’s a character in Plato’s corpus for each of us: I’m Theaetetus; my politically-minded students are Glaucon; my excited and excitable novices are Phaedrus; my rule-lovers, Crito; and my arrogant know-it-alls, Thrasymachus—who, like him, can be won over, though may take a while. By identifying with one of the interlocutors, we are brought into a wider discussion through Socrates’s tired old words about the same old truth. We are addressed as particular human beings, not as utterly unique and incomparable accidents. In just this way, we are then led to universal topics of relevance to humans as such.

For the teacher’s words to lead the student to grasp the truth for himself, the teacher must speak to the student as he is, not at the student as the teacher wishes him to be. Also discussing Aquinas, Chesterton makes a similar point: “We must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours.” To convince an opponent, we must speak his language and argue from his premises, even if we do so to show the premises to be false. Likewise, teaching requires that we speak to the student on his terms. How else will he hear what the teacher says, let alone understand it to be true? As Polemarchus puts it in the Republic when Socrates tries to persuade the former to let him go home from the Piraeus, you can’t persuade someone who won’t listen—all teachers, real or fake, know this. The teacher must consider the “existing position and disposition” of the student, and must get them to listen in the first place in order to take them anywhere, though we should prefer a destination that is true, beautiful, and good to one that is false, ugly, and bad.

Does this mean that teachers must pander to their students, adjusting their teaching regularly to accommodate ever-changing cultural idiosyncrasies? I don’t think so. I won’t deny that different generations of students have their own abilities and deficiencies. They are differently oriented to the world and, thus, to education. To be sure, the kids nowadays have their problems. However, this has always been so. I have no doubt my teachers thought me and my peers woefully inadequate: we were nihilists, cynics, ironists, and mostly apathetic—ours was the “slacker” generation.

Today’s students don’t read, they don’t think for themselves, and they are too anxious, overextended, capricious, and militantly idealistic. None of this is exactly right, even if these stereotypes hold some weight. Be that as it may, the stereotypes aren’t pedagogically decisive. Again, it has always been so. In every generation, young people are immature and not ready for serious study. That’s what young people are like. And that’s also why we bother to educate them.

I can’t know every single student in a classroom; frankly, I can’t know any of them well. Thus, I can’t tailor my lessons to each of them in a unique way, but I can approach them as human persons who are ready to learn if only I try to teach them. This doesn’t require nuanced attempts at inclusion or pedagogical techniques designed to appeal to myriad kinds of learners all at once. It does require a degree of humility, and the constant reminder that students are human beings who also happen to not know things. Some won’t learn, but many will if I lead them to something true.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “A Reading from Homer” painted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1885.


  • Edvard Lorkovic

    Edvard Lorkovic is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. A generalist by choice, if not by formation, his teaching and research focus on moral and political issues in ancient and late modern philosophy.

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