I am often asked what distinguishes a “Great Books” teacher from an average secondary-school educator, and the answer is both subtle and tricky. I suppose, at the base level, the response is that a “Great Books” teacher must be a true educator, rather than one simply manufactured by training. To be a true educator, here, does not suggest that a Great Books teacher knows more than an average teacher, but the Great Books teacher simply has a different orientation or attitude from the normal sort. This is to say that a GB teacher wishes to live a life of infinite and eternal learning. So, in a way, rather than pursuing traditional professional development, a GB teacher desires to be a life-long learner. And though this sounds like being a professor, and is in this respect, less time is spent championing issues, serving on committees, and publishing literature–this time is generally devoted to increased learning, more reading, and pursuing public seminars with a broader community of learners. GB teachers, then, cannot be trained, are rarely found, and are thus diamonds in the rough.
How, then, does one become a GB teacher? On the one hand, of course, there is the attitude of being a life-long learner, and ocean fed by the rivers of boundless thought. This attitude, though natural, may be cultivated in several ways, and in fact, must be in order to be maintained. The path that I, personally, took was to pursue graduate work at St. John’s College, a Great Books school, known for training teachers, specifically, in its graduate program. In the program at my high school which I designed, however, there are teachers from several differing backgrounds who have been successful: some come from undergraduate programs with Great Books emphases like Gutenburg College or Biola’s Torrey Honor’s Program. Others come from backgrounds in local home-school high school programs which focus on the Great Books like Escondido’s own Escondido Tutorial Service. And then others come from traditional teaching backgrounds and learn the ins and outs of navigating great literature through in-house and community seminars run by veteran teachers. The cash-value, or bottom-line difference, thus, is that a GB teacher focuses on process over methodology and values communal, seminar-style learning over the more medieval lecture based curriculum and the more recent project-based learning model currently gaining traction. In pursuing an education which connects us to the past, not only the books, but even the methods lead us backwards.
This attitude, therefore, of being a life-long learner redirects the current model of education from “giver-of-knowledge to recipient” to the more effective, and more honest model of “fellow seeker, or warden seeking to learn alongside another.” One then connects with one’s students through exploring the depths of the minds of the great thinkers together. One acts more as a final cause, always pushing forward by leading alongside one, rather than pushing from the back as an efficient cause and insisting on rote learning and the stifling practice of espousing unit goals, learning outcomes, and essential questions. What guides a Great Books teacher, and this takes art, which is to say more than simply training or knowledge, is the flow of thought in the current moment about an ancient idea–very much similar to Dante’s perception of the mutable image of the griffin in Earthly Paradise. Though the essence of thing remains unchanging, its image is constantly shifting. a Great Books teacher, therefore, recognizes well that one can never step in the same river twice, and yet one may step into a river many times.
Essential to understanding the difference elucidated above is that the teacher does not view himself or herself as the giver of knowledge, but rather as a glass through which knowledge may pass–a mediator in the service of illumination. In Dante’s Purgatorio, Beatrice serves as an intermediary between Dante and the Divine which, like mentioned above, allows Dante to see the essential nature of the being through the mutable forms it appears to have. This is what a Great Books teacher does as well. Rather than considering himself or herself the source of wisdom, a GB teacher, as steward to the king (knowledge or truth), seeks to hone, refine, and clarify the knowledge which a great books shares, and in a way, to translate it to whoever his or her audience happens to be, and in whatever language or terms, such an audience speaks. A great books teacher must be a master of pathos, then, in this respect, and while a normal, average, teacher may be a cup filled to the brim with pedagogical tricks and formulae, and a relation of some strength to his curriculum, a GB teacher is an emptied cup, who shows his students how to fill their own by actually doing it himself. Most teachers are unwilling to show themselves in the process of learning–they feel it portrays them as less masterful because it shows that they do not know something. This is most unfortunate, because whether one studies Plato or Lao-Tzu, one perceives that the master does not know, but is always learning. And that is what he has to offer his students–how to learn, not simply “what-to-know”, its crass corruption. So, in its final analysis, an average teacher, overwhelmed by the pride of knowing, forgets what makes a teacher truly great: humility: which opens the golden path towards learning.
Source: (Dante and Virgil among the Envious on the mountain of Purgatory)
Source: (Dante and the prideful)