Learning and Courage

Dr. Peter Schramm

March 15, 2001

Learning and Courage

I believe that being a good teacher has less to do with the subject than it does with the character, both intellectual and moral, of the teacher and his attitude toward the subject matter. The main thing that a teacher has to be able to convey to a student is that that particular subject, at that particular moment—in which the student and the teacher are talking—is the most important subject and therefore the most important moment in their lives. And this is true of any subject, chemistry or politics, mathematics or history. If a teacher can’t do that than he will not be successful in conveying any facts or information or any serious thinking on that subject. In other words, passion has to be engaged with the intellect, focused on a particular issue or question. The soul has to be turned in order to get it to listen and be engaged. The student must see the teacher as a living example of what it means to learn, to think.

Courage is the necessary condition of learning. Most students are afraid to learn. Most students (especially the freshmen, just coming out of high school), when they first open Aristotle, or Shakespeare, or John Locke, or Jane Austen, think, “Oh my God! This is serious and deep and I can’t handle it.” This, of course, is not true. But they do not yet know it is not true, for they lack the experience of having made a serious attempt at engaging another mind through a book that deals with the largest possible human questions: What is the purpose of life? What is justice? What is friendship? What is self-government? And so on.

A good teacher has to bring this student, who is not yet in the habit of thinking and is afraid to start, into the large questions. The easiest way to do that is to have them read some very fine books (at one time they used to be called “Great Books” but it is no longer politically correct to use such a term, so I try to avoid it, although sometimes I slip into the Old Ways). These books are better and more engaging than the teacher. This means that the student meets another human mind head on. And he quickly discovers—with the help of the teacher, who is just acting as a go between the student and the book—that he can have conversations with this mind, conversations that cross the centuries and cross the oceans. The student quickly discovers that he is able to understand an Aristotle, for example. He comes to learn that in a certain fundamental sense he is equal not to only the teacher, but to the mind as revealed in the book he is reading. He soon discovers that the only difference between the teacher standing in front of the classroom and himself is that the teacher has more experience in these matters than he himself does. But he learns that he is capable of having great conversations with the mind that is revealed in the book he is reading. The teacher, in admitting that the book is the superior teacher in the classroom, shows by example that the student and the teacher are equal; they both are capable of understanding.

The student will soon learn that he is not given an education by the teacher or by anyone else: He has to take, so to speak, an education by himself. The teacher is merely a guide toward an education. The teacher is there to help him in his search, and in this sense the teacher is really no better than the student (although he will have more experience). Put another way, the teacher may know why he loves the subject more than the student does. The only real difference between the teacher and a student is about 30 years (give or take).

In doing the above, the teacher will seem very demanding of the students, perhaps too demanding. The student heretofore has been treated too well. He has not been asked to extend himself. He is now asked to stretch, to extend. At first this is painful and then it gets to be a great pleasure. For the whole of his career the student is well cared for: he has food, shelter, friends, amusements. In short, all the necessities are taken care of. He must be persuaded that he should take advantage of this leisure. During the four years he is here the student will learn to think, will be able to find out what he is capable of, what he loves, and may even find out what he wants to do for the rest of his life. But whatever that may be, he surely will have had a fine experience in thinking, something that he will never forget, and something that he may continue doing, at his will, for the rest of his life.

I tell the students that they ought to study those things that are not useful. I tell them that they ought to take advantage of these four years to introduce themselves to the highest possible things: the true, the good, and the beautiful. They are mistaken if they think (along with most parents) that what they ought to be able to do at age eighteen is decide what they want to be “when they grow up.” There is no reason to decide that yet. Those practical things will take care of themselves. Of course going to college will help you get a job. But that is not the reason you should be here. That will be a nice side effect to your education. You should come to college to get an education and thereby become a better human being than you would be without it.

You should immerse yourself in the best things, in those things that are good in themselves, those things that are not instrumental for the sake of something else. You should do what is hard, what feels to be important. If you have an option to take a Shakespeare seminar or a class in accounting, take the Shakespeare seminar. You don’t have to know anything to know that that seminar may be better, may be higher, than the counting class. Why?Because there is nothing mysterious about accounting, but there is something mysterious about King Lear, Othello, or Julius Caesar. One is just problem solving the other is (somehow) concerned with all the big questions of life. Now is the time to consider those questions. Take a bite, roll it around your tongue for a while, taste its sweetness.

And when in doubt always do what is difficult. When you buy a horse you should buy the best horse that you can for the money that you have. But you should buy a horse that is slightly better than the one you think you’re capable of riding, because in doing that the horse will end up teaching you to go beyond yourself, to make you a better horseman than you would be with a horse that is easier to handle. And to do that is very difficult—trust me I know—because you are afraid.