The Teacher as a Philosopher

When we consider what is required of us when we take up the task of educating our children, donning the cloak of a philosopher is not generally at the top of the list. More likely, becoming a philosopher is not on the list at all. Nevertheless, Charlotte Mason twice suggests that one of the roles of a teacher is that of a philosopher.

The teacher who allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding. (Philosophy of Education, p. 32)

…his [the teacher’s] part is not the weariful task of spoon-feeding with pap-meat, but the delightful commerce of equal minds where his is the part of guide, philosopher, and friend. (Philosophy of Education, p. 237)

Most of us can fit ourselves into the roles of “guide” and “friend,” but that of “philosopher” is another matter. We shift uncomfortably in the ill-fitting garments, thinking that they were made for someone else. Philosophers are old men or radical subversives or historical figures; in any case,  “philosophers” are somebody else, and not us. But if Charlotte Mason thought acting as a philosopher was part of the role of being a teacher, she must have expected that it was an attainable goal.

Why does the teacher need to be a philosopher, and how will his being one benefit the pupil?  Before we attend to this question let us ask ourselves first, in Socratic fashion, “What is a philosopher?” The word comes from Greek roots which mean “lover of wisdom,” and although that definition will not suffice, it is a beginning. Philosophy concerns itself with ideas that matter–the whys and wherefores behind actions, events, and even physical things.

Have you ever asked yourself questions such as– “Why did I say that? What would happen if I acted in this way? What is the purpose of this activity?” If so, you were thinking like a philosopher. A philosopher takes nothing for granted–not the world, not the people around him, not himself. Even a Christian who believes the Bible as perfect truth will have questions like these. David, Solomon, Job, and Paul, among other Biblical figures, asked hard philosophical questions. Sometimes God has complete answers, and sometimes he does not, but asking the questions in the first place is a philosophical thing to do–lovers of wisdom and knowledge ask questions because they desire to know. Complete answers are not always available, but that does not stop a philosopher from asking.

By taking nothing for granted, philosophers try not to allow themselves to become accustomed to the wonders and miracles that God has placed in the world. It is truly wonderful that the universe is so orderly we are able to aim a rocket into the nothingness of outer space because we know that Mars will be there when the craft arrives on the spot. It is a miraculous thing that a dry seed, shriveled and dead, will spring into life when earth, water, light, and warmth are present. We should be truly awed that there are more than five billion people on earth, and every one of them is a unique human soul. Waking and sleeping and getting through the day in a fog little better than sleep is not the way of the philosopher. He (or she!) is always noticing something interesting, always asking questions. He does not have to know all the answers.

Charlotte Mason understood this well and reminded us:

Children should be brought up, too, to perceive that a miracle is not less a miracle because it occurs so constantly and regularly that we call it a law; that sap rises in a tree, that a boy is born with his uncle’s eyes, that an answer that we can perceive comes to our serious prayers; these things are not the less miracles because they happen frequently or invariably, and because we have ceased to wonder about them.” (Philosophy of Education,  p. 148)

So why does a teacher need to be a philosopher? Children already have the philosophical qualities we have mentioned–they tend to truly impressed by the world they encounter, and they are masters at asking questions. They need a teacher who understands and appreciates the need for both keeping and developing these human characteristics, for they may be lost. Most people lose them.

When you read a book with your child, you can ask the kinds of philosophical questions that will encourage deeper thinking and understanding–a reminder that the books we read are a part of a greater world. Questions about details are tiresome, but questions such as, “should a person in authority behave as this character did?” encourage a student to think beyond the storyline. Comparing the behavior of one character to another, wondering whether a reaction was reasonable, asking about possible motives or consequences–these are “philosophical” questions that children might not think to ask on their own. A good teacher will encourage the habit of such questions.

You will probably discover that you already have plenty of philosophical ideas. You may not think of yourself as a philosopher, but the better a philosopher you are, the better a teacher you will be. Another popular word for philosophy is “worldview.” As you understand your own and others’ worldviews, and learn to discern the worldview of the authors you read, you become a philosopher.

Charlotte Mason enjoyed a quote that came from an anonymous philosopher: “The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself.” Learning begins with questions–not questions posed by a teacher from without, such as “where is California?” or “Who was the third vice-president of the United States?”–but questions that the mind forms in response to the world and events. “Why don’t India and Pakistan get along? What makes someone hate as much as Hitler hated the Jews? Is it possible to love somebody too much?”

So, perhaps we need not be afraid of Charlotte Mason’s suggestion that the role of the teacher is that of philosopher. Most of us are philosophers at heart, perhaps without realizing it. The best part of this role is that this function of the teacher is not particularly formal. We just need to be ready to discuss ideas with our children, and listen when they want to talk about what they’ve read. Philosophers do not stand in front of classrooms lecturing. Theirs is usually the one-on-one approach, such as that of Socrates in Athens, gnawing at a question until some kind of answer becomes apparent.

Being a “philosopher” for your students implies a close relationship, with freedom to discuss ideas wherever you meet them. We sometimes use the word “mentor” as a more modern way to describe this relationship. Aristotle was a philosopher, but he was also the teacher and mentor of Alexander the Great. We are not Aristotle, but that philosopher-mentor-teacher role is one that is important to the student.

A growing, long-term relationship between teacher and pupil lends itself to developing a philosophical mindset.

It is better, on the whole, that the training of the pupil should be undertaken by one wise teacher than that he should be passed from hand to hand for this subject and that. (School Education, p. 170)

As parents and as teachers, we are in a position to build a solid philosophical foundation for our children–or rather, to assist them in laying that foundation for themselves.

Stepping into this role as a “philosopher” is not as difficult as it might first appear. By reading articles like this one, you have already begun. Next, ask whatever questions come to mind. When you start trying to find the answers to your questions, you are acting as a philosopher. A philosopher is a student, and when we can say, like Socrates, that the one thing we are sure of is that we “do not know,” the philosopher’s robes will rest a little easier on our shoulders, and we will be ready to find answers, together with the young people who are our students and children.

For further reading:

You might like to read just one Socratic dialogue, and see how this famous philosopher asked questions of his sometimes unwilling pupils.

Copyright 2002 Karen Glass

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