The Noble Art of Teaching

In an age where nobody has much to say about teaching that is terribly edifying, a defence of the once-noble profession, that like so much else in our present moment has lost its soul, must be occasionally mounted. One must orientate oneself upward from time to time. C.S. Lewis said that if you cannot find something to love, the next best thing is to find something to fight; and with enemies enough to fight, it is essential to have something to love, too. Teaching, a profession that is ultimately about love, is a good enough place to start. The profession, having drifted from its roots, is in dire straits across the Anglosphere; in the United States, three quarters of the states cannot find enough teachers. In Australia, the shortage is even worse. Few, it seems, envision themselves as a latter-day Mr Chips, and this seems to be the case from early childhood to post-graduate education. What has happened, and what ought to be done, demand attention.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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We all experience dozens, if not hundreds, of teachers over the course of our lives. Most are unremarkable, though there are exceptions that run in either direction. We all have a story about the teacher who merely passed the time between holiday breaks, the sarcastic teacher who took out their pet frustrations on a captive audience, and, on the other hand, the teacher who oriented us towards something profound. There is something rare, and unequivocally special, about the teacher and the class united in direction and purpose, like a ship with a full sail behind a unitary breeze. If we are lucky, we have experienced that once or twice, and we might have gained not just knowledge, but also the sense of a shared journey that is rare in the twenty-first-century world. This is the other gift teaching ought to give the world, if done right—an anchor in a world that disdains anchors. Unless they are sent to prison, the school is likely the only non-voluntary community most young people will ever belong to.

There are a few works that have influenced my view of teaching. The first is Gilbert Highet’s The Art of Teaching, published in 1950. Others include A Man for All Seasons, the wonderful play by Robert Bolt, adapted for film in 1966; and some honourable mentions go to the R.F. Delderfield series To Serve Them All My Days, begun in 1972, as well as Brian Moore’s Black Robe and Solzhenitsyn’s For the Good of the Cause. In these works are bits and pieces that might help to work a remedy against the poison that has overtaken the profession.

The Art of Teaching is a wonderful remedy to the sort of pseudo-intellectual jargon that masquerades as educational theory today, and this is immediately obvious from its title, which does not pretend that there is anything terribly scientific about teaching. Oh, there are arguments that can be made about cognitive load and attention spans, and how to activate various parts of the brain, but the truth is that one can be a perfectly good teacher having never heard of any of those things. Anybody who has existed in the world for a span of time, paying any kind of attention, is aware of those things we know, without knowing their names; and how to transmit knowledge, from one vessel to another, is something we give and receive often before we are cognisant of our own existence.

Much of what makes a good teacher is innate. Attempts to quantify teaching in scientific terms, to make it circle around datapoints, effect-sizes and graphs that fly about this way and that, are guaranteed to kill the thing as surely as a stake to an undead heart. The teacher who aims to deploy the latest strategy they learned at a professional development day has already been duped by the slick marketing and stamp of authority that is part-and-parcel of the Professional Development Industrial Complex. Much goes into marketing education consultants and their pseudo-scientific work, because education departments with large budgets and collapsing standards need silver bullets, and there are plenty of opportunists on hand with suspiciously full bandoliers.

To anybody who has been marinated in the langue de bois of the zeitgeist that surrounds contemporary education, The Art of Teaching is a breath of fresh air, written with something resembling the cadence of a Renaissance man, a product of its time and better for it. Gilbert Highet has a deep and complex understanding of human nature, the sort that seemed to be commonplace for men of his time. What has replaced it, and leaked into the entire schema of modern schooling, is part-Rousseau, part-Marx, with a sprinkling of Freud and the behaviourist psychologists who followed him. It is this we should explore before we look to Highet’s wisdom.

Modern educationists, at least since John Dewey, have intellectual roots deep in the Romantic movement that preceded them by a century, and in the corollary notion that people are spoiled by civilisation, rather than the reverse. All children are now the descendants of Rousseau’s Emile, about whom he coined his famous line: Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man. The modern education system across much of the West, premised on this idea, has suffered a gradual crisis of authority. This is because all authority, according to this version of human nature, is a Very Bad Thing, and puts those who want to run schools and classes into a terrible bind. They are never quite comfortable with their own position, believing, as many do, that the cure to all social ills is a shoddily-defined demotic egalitarianism. This is why academic articles from educationists are full of notions such as the democratic classroom, the teacher as facilitator, and other claptrap that is really a motley metapolitical theory masquerading as something that might be useful in front of a class. The problem is that institutional power does not disperse, it pools, and if does not pool in the hands of those who should wield it, it will do so elsewhere; say, in the hands of the rampaging gang defacing the toilets every lunchtime. We might expect the young to have an instinctive view of all authority as tyrannical—but the teachers?

If everything degenerates in the hands of men, then the lightest touch possible ought to be how we manage things. This explains the emphasis on “student-centred learning”, which defaults to letting Google do the job, and loose to non-existent behaviour management in many schools. The latter, above all else, is driving teachers out of the profession in droves. One strategy to improve behaviour is called “Positive Behaviour for Learning”, which aims to replace mean-sounding words with nice ones. “Don’t punch little Jimmy,” is replaced by, “We are nice to our peers in this learning community.” For ideologues who have enjoyed success manipulating language in the past, it should be unsurprising that this is the recommended course of action. If you are the vulpine sort of adolescent who smells weakness at an instinctual level, you’re in for a feast. There is something liberating, but also terrifying, about realising there are no real adults in the room. This is where we abandon our “at risk” youths, by being afraid to deal with wickedness in a forthright way.

Adjacent to this is the lack of an objective ethical framework, passed down to the young, by which one ought to operate—outside, of course, the vague parameters of inclusion, diversity, equality and the rest. These are better rendered as political slogans, designed to flush out those who are outside the flock, rather than a code for life; as a result, the only way to make moral arguments to the young is through a consequentialist lens. You shouldn’t do x because y might occur is the best many can manage, any deontological notion of the good being good for its own sake being abandoned. If positive arguments for x can be mounted, then you’re in a little trouble, and there’s a reason sin is considered to be original, Emile aside. Human beings are rather good at making those sorts of arguments.

We are “outcomes based”, even if we change the language every few years. The risk is that we encourage latter-day Thrasymachuses among the young, who swallow and propound the notion that rules are only there to benefit certain quarters, that being immoral for one’s own advantage is hardly immoral at all. That this has in some quarters become a governing ethic for many should surprise nobody.

“The real duty of man,” says Highet, “is not to extend his power or multiply his wealth beyond his needs, but to enrich and enjoy his imperishable possession: his soul.” A better rejoinder to a utilitarian approach to education can hardly be imagined. Compare this with something by John Hattie, who is probably the most important educational theorist in Australia today: “What does matter is teachers having a mind frame in which they see it as their role to evaluate their effect on learning.” In the juxtaposition of those two lines, you can see everything that has happened; you can see that the life has been squeezed from the thing, and that what remains is a Frankenstein’s monster of stale clichés, of pseudo-scientific linguistics, the reduction of the thing to a spreadsheet rather than an artwork. There’s nothing in it to lift the soul, and it confirms Highet’s proposition, that “a scientific relationship between human beings is bound to be inadequate and perhaps distorted”. He concludes on the following note: “You must throw your heart into it, you must realise that it cannot all be done by formulas, or you will spoil your work, your students, and yourself.” We might as well make that the epigraph to all the recent efforts by education departments, who have pulled things in the opposite direction.

Read Highet’s book if you want to know what teaching should look like, and if you believe, as I do, that it is essentially unchanged in character, method and substance since before Socrates. Through Highet’s work runs a deeply humane spirit, one that reflects the truth that teaching is essentially an art, and not a science; that the young require order, and that we ought not to be sentimental about it in silly terms, as the romantic types have managed over the past few decades. A world of natural anarchists, as Highet notes, is impractical now; as is a world full of men with nothing they can do well, and women who make love without realising it means children. It is good medicine to read something from a time sure of itself.

A Man for All Seasons might seem an odd choice, written as it was about Sir Thomas More in the age of Henry VIII. Yet I return to it—or rather, one exchange from it—to explain why teaching ought to matter, especially when one runs into an old colleague from another life, or from university, who might look upon the teacher—whether changing nappies in daycare or a lecturer at university—as somebody content to live life in the slow lane. In this particular exchange, Sir Thomas More is counselling his protégé, and soon-to-be betrayer, Richard Rich, who is keen to advance his career via what amounts to selling his soul.

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

Not a bad public, indeed. Who would know it, and its unspoken ancillary, who would respect it, is a sticking point for many who look at teaching for a moment and then disregard it forever. Kim Beazley Senior once declared that the Australian Labor Party had gone from being composed of the cream of the working class to the dregs of the middle class, and it seems something similar happened to teaching over the course of the last century. Much of this had do with those formidable pre-second-wave-feminism women who were attracted to teaching, and brought the sharpest wits and most indomitable wills to the world of chalk and blackboards. Many of that sort, assuming they can be formed in our present milieu to begin with, might now be snapped up to work in human resources or become influencers or something similarly frivolous. The post-war generation of men, many of whom were citizen-soldiers who went into teaching, provided a similar kind of granite to the schools, and it seems they were largely replaced by facsimiles resembling something out of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man by the 1970s and 1980s.

In short, the profession managed a sort of collective downward social mobility in the span of a few decades. In the wake of our post-war boom, it can be difficult for the general public to respect a profession that produces nothing, or at least, produces nothing without a twenty-year incubation period. Teachers are often looked at as also-rans, those who couldn’t do. One must shrug one’s shoulders at this sort of thing. Somebody taught you to read, after all.

Part of this we might put down to the increasing universalisation of schooling, which has done wonders for women’s mass employment, though perhaps without bringing about the age of unanimous wisdom its architects intended. Teaching, as part of this transformation, became a mass profession, and the first casualty a mass profession accrues is the broad expectation of excellence. In Australia, there is much hullabaloo about the low standards required for university entry among those who undertake education degrees. The reality is in the numbers; warm bodies are required, for reasons of duty-of-care, and so that parents can head off to build the economy unencumbered by thoughts of child-rearing. As a bonus education, as a tertiary discipline, has few overheads, thus serving as a licence for those neo-liberal businesses we once called universities to print money. Then there are the teaching unions, which have done a great deal for improving the salaries of a profession traditionally regarded as poverty-stricken, but have not done such a wonderful service in terms of the high regard the noble profession once enjoyed. They are part of the reason it is so difficult to dislodge non-performing teachers, and why attempts to improve the profession, broadly speaking, come unstuck.

For these reasons and others, teaching in the West enjoys a much-reduced status, especially when compared with East Asia, where the teacher is often regarded, as once was the case in the West, comparable to the doctor or the lawyer. And for he who wishes to take himself rather seriously, teaching has a further natural hurdle: your day can be utterly ruined by a thirteen-year-old. They will find your weaknesses, that is certain, and for those who struggle to win over young minds, teaching becomes counter-insurgency before anything else. In the English-speaking world you must convince them to accompany you on the journey, rather than push them into cattle-cars, and this comes back to how innate what makes a good teacher truly is. There is a limit to how much you can teach a teacher, especially one who comes convinced of his own self-importance. It is of no help whatsoever that our general ethos, that disdains all the things that lend themselves to an appreciation of healthy authority, leaves the individual teacher relying on the persuasive power of her personality, a power never distributed evenly.

Thus we can empathise with Richard Rich’s lack of enthusiasm, one that has only sharpened in our own time. Solutions to the problem of teaching’s poor image are predictable: offer more money, even as budgets creak, or do some hard marketing. We seem to think marketing is the solution to all our ills, as befits a truly consumerist society; it amounts to a belief in the sovereign power of trickery. A positive public relations campaign extolling the virtues of teaching is difficult to imagine, because the secret rewards of teaching are intimate, hard-won and difficult to express to those who do not know them. The best I can imagine is an internet advertisement featuring a smiling middle-aged woman, surrounded by cheerful children, saying something like this: “I love that I get to make a difference. I can advocate for social justice and know that I am working with like-minded people. It helps that the pay, conditions and holidays allow me to live the lifestyle I choose.” You can imagine the sort of heart this pathos might move.

The inherent nobility of teaching is that it is one of the few accessible callings that enjoys a spiritual element in an otherwise entirely secular environ. Highet entreats the teacher to be a little higher than the actor with his audience, a little lower than the priest with his congregation, a little gentler than the officer with his unit. With it comes the sense of building something in others, not only in individuals but a collective, something that hinges on the past, as well as the future, something that is selfless to an extent, when done right; a thing that the contemporary disposition, oriented in exactly the opposite direction, cannot well understand let alone embrace. It is not merely about “preparing a generation to be twenty-first-century learners” in that purely utilitarian sense, which is a secondary concern despite what the educationists would have you believe—that the prime purpose is to create nuts and bolts for the economy. Rather, it is to put the young in their proper context, as part of something beyond themselves, even as we do a terrible job of it. We cannot escape the fact that all of us belong to something we didn’t choose. The schools once understood this role; that they have abrogated their duty towards it, in favour of acting as gigantic indoctrination factories for a new and prescriptive notion of what society ought to be, means that the conservative teacher, even in ostensibly conservative private schools, will always feel at odds with the organisation to which he is bound. He ought to remember he owes his dues to higher loyalties.

Sir Thomas More rebukes Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons, after Rich betrays him for the position of Attorney-General in Wales: “For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world—but for Wales!” We could say the same of those ambitious-without-merit types who clamber up the greasy pole in educational leadership, who desire desperately to exchange the difficulties of the classroom for those of the staffroom, and who forget that the core purpose of the school is essentially a spiritual one. The calling is one of mutual edification, one of the few that exist any longer, where you can sleep soundly at night knowing you are working towards the Good.

One thing to be said for teaching is that, aside from those careerist examples, it encourages people of goodwill and purpose, even those enslaved to bad ideologies. Certainly, teaching serves as a curative to the soul, a process best represented in the R. F. Delderfield series To Serve Them All My Days. In the first book, a veteran of the trenches arrives, complete with shellshock, to a new school, to begin his post-war professional work. Over the course of the series, he is rebuilt as a man.

Teaching is, at its heart, a profession born out of agape love, and the teacher who does not accept this, who does not love young people, individually and in groups, will struggle his whole career. Fortunately, while we can dispense with the notion that the young have any special moral insights, we can agree that they do not carry the rusted-on vices of years and decades that we grown-ups bear. While you are aiming to invest in them, you might find they invest in you, too; that they will work a restorative effect on you, as you work to build their minds. I am always reminded of the bishop in Les Misérables, who ransoms the soul of Jean Valjean:

Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.

This is the power of goodwill, between one human being to another, bought at a certain cost of self-sacrifice; and few professions allow this sort of thing any longer. It is not something you can write into policy, as mercy requires justice to balance the scales, and an attempt to show “Unconditional Positive Regard”, as in many places has become school policy, is bound to be exploited by those vulpine types, to the detriment of everybody else, particularly those who must live at eye-level with them. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in For the Good of the Cause, the supreme reward of the teacher is students crowding eagerly around you, hoping to gain nothing beyond the delight of your presence. He continues, describing the protagonist Lidia:

They could not have said what it was they saw in her. It was just that, being young, they responded to anything genuine. You only had to take one look at her to know she meant what she said.

In a world increasingly starved of this sort of thing—of genuineness of any timbre—it can move even the coarsest heart. The curative has its reverse, mind, that it can devour, and that it can be hard to know how much it might cost you. Often, the bureaucratic and managerial side of the job will hardly seem to inhabit the same universe as the human side. The form with dotted lines and checkboxes is the natural enemy of human warmth, of the hand on the shoulder, of the understanding look.

In the final scene of the film adaptation of Brian Moore’s Black Robe, set in North America in the seventeenth century, the Huron Indians, many afflicted with smallpox, ask Father LaForgue, the titular Jesuit missionary, to baptise them. He, having halfway lost his rationalistic faith, is hardly the redoubtable pillar of European certainty we took him for at the beginning of the book. They look to him, the sullen savages of Kipling’s telling, though not unworthy of respect and dignity, easily capable of stoving his head in with a tomahawk; much like a class of teenagers. “Do you love us, Black Robe? Then baptise us.” And so he does, and the film ends. He came to North America armed with the arguments of the seminary, the leaden orthodoxies of the Church far away; in the end all that remained was his love for these people, a people he could lead, whom he could be among but never one of; people who would misunderstand him, who could sometimes be very cruel, with their own rituals, their own ways of being, that he could not trespass into. Every generation begins, even in our post-industrial world, as savages again, and must be recivilised, Emile be damned—and the mission cannot be done with a cold heart.

Teaching is agape love, or it is nothing at all; it is not a collection of bureaucratic exercises and professional development days. The reason many leave is because agape has limits, and in a society where social disaster is omnipresent, the school is one of the few institutions young people can count on with any reliability. Highet, writing in 1950, when things seemed to hold together a little better, noted that “the problem must be solved by the municipal authorities, the churches, the police, the local political organisations, by the rest of the citizens, and by the parents themselves”.

What remains today that passes for civil society? There are therapists and well-marketed agencies you can call, with armies of social workers, but on the whole you can count on little else. Few people belong to community organisations, fewer still to churches, and most are well and truly atomised, incubated in local dysfunction. Into this void is thrown the teacher, in loco parentis. We ask a great deal of teachers, many of whom are holding young lives together, even if they don’t know it themselves. There is only so much you can give before you’re giving more than you can manage, and something has to collapse. Perhaps your personal life; perhaps your health.

Highet is right that one must know one’s subject, and know one’s students, and he goes a step further; that you must love both. All our vanities about how to improve teaching forget that, at day’s end, if the teacher hath not love, she hath nothing. And if the secret to all good teaching might be reduced to a simple handful of words, they would belong to Brian Moore. They are the words the class asks the good teacher every day.

Do you love us?


Christopher Jolliffe, a regular contributor, wrote on the decline of religious belief in the January-February issue.


4 thoughts on “The Noble Art of Teaching

  • Tony Tea says:

    “slick marketing and stamp of authority that is part-and-parcel of the Professional Development Industrial Complex.”
    The PDIC has tried to ensnare me in it’s jargonistic claws, but so far, through the last 24 years I’ve managed to keep the beast at bay.


    My favourite teachers were the ones who lead by example with strong discipline and who cultivated a unique persona. The prosecution of discipline gave us secure boundaries, The unique persona, even if quirky, gave us variety and made the school routine rewarding. I still have treasured memories of those teachers. The live on in the way I enjoy applying what they taught me, all that beautiful stuff of knowledge and life.

  • Paul.Harrison says:

    At 72 years old, age does not weary me, and I enjoy recalling my school years and my ability to sponge up the knowledge delivered. I so enjoyed it. I can clearly remember two of the five I admired most, and with two simple actions from them, separated by the chasm of time, I learnt what could never be taught and would that I could die happy having absorbed their wisdom and put it into practice.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Your well-expressed article troubles me because it lacks remedies.
    We have a grandchild just into teens, so we have extra interest in your topic. Recent reading, for example, points to a problem of profitable influence groups peddling suspect canned teaching topics and curricula that teachers seem compelled to follow. If this reduces the ability of inspired teachers to express inspiration, that would be a problem; and a remedy would be cessation of use of canned propaganda.
    Another present problem seems to be union influence. Post WWII, I was commonly in primary school classes with more than 50 pupils per teacher. If I am correct, union demands today would prevent such class sizes. The remedy would be to reduce union influence.
    A third problem is reduced discipline. Several of my teachers threatened me with the cane and my parents with a worse belting if I failed to top the class without excuse each exam. I can say with much confidence that such success as I might have had in Life was heavily affected by this encouragement. Self-discipline seems a better option than stealing cars from home invasions when you are thirteen. The remedy is to bring back corporal punishment.
    All three remedies are not beyond the wit of people to achieve.
    Can you be encouraged to write a following article about remedies?
    Geoff S

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