16 February 2008

Why I teach

I offer my condolences to students and their families, faculty, staff, and the community of Northern Illinois University.

And finally, in the light of tragic events there, I think I know why I teach.

It means a lot to me to be part of an institution with a long history and a continuous commitment to its mission: pursuing knowledge, in the hope of gaining understanding and wisdom: the central goal of a university.

I don’t mean my home institution, which is not that old; I mean the idea of the university. The university is a medieval institution, founded in the centuries I have spent my adult life studying. As a professor, I take my place in a tradition that has lasted a millenium.

Of course, medieval masters would be shocked by my classroom: taught by a secular, a woman? With women in the classroom! And why are you reading that secular vernacular trash? Look at all the books—every page alike! So bright in here, so warm! What are these people wearing? Does no one know Latin any more? What do all these neologisms mean? And that’s just my classroom, before getting to the rest of the university and its organization.

Nonetheless, I feel the continuity between myself and the medieval masters. It is their commitment to learning, their arguments about the nature of God, their practice of dialectic, their reading to students from precious books, their public disputations, that make possible my work and the work of my colleagues in other departments. We all pursue knowledge; we all hope to understand better our world, our history, ourselves and each other because of this work; most of us hope such understanding can lead to wisdom. Even if our findings are fit only for the Journal of Negative Results, we’re engaged in a process that is in itself meaningful.

I find new knowledge in the library, or at my desk. But the classroom is where I stand up and get counted as a believer in the university’s work. In the classroom, I speak for the importance of asking questions, studying arcane subjects, putting together the puzzle pieces of intellectual inquiry. In teaching, I assert, implicitly or explicitly, that the life of the mind is important, that you should learn more than just what is required to manage day to day life, that preserving and extending knowledge is a worthwhile endeavor.

Both my research and my teaching can, and eventually will, be continued by others. Far from indispensable, I am an academic cog. But I am not alienated from my labors. I have my place in the Great Chain of University Beings, furthering the pursuit of knowledge as best I can.

This is a far more abstract answer than most bloggers have given to this meme, which surprises me, because usually I favor concrete thought. But underneath pleasure in the classroom, or the need to support a research habit, or any of the other good reasons to teach, I find that teaching, for me, is a matter of principle. Every day that I teach, I am standing up for something I believe in: that there is value in pursuing knowledge for its own sake; and that that pursuit may lead to wisdom.

I am a little surprised to find that I am leading such a principled life.

1 comment:

Fretful Porpentine said...

I love this post. Thanks for reminding me why we're here.