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To Teach, To Learn: Thoughts on the Profession.


      Anyone who aspires to a university presidency should provide an account of his or her philosophy of the profession. What does it mean to be a university professor, a teacher? In his book Begin Here, published in 1991, Jacques Barzun gave us, I think, the language to describe and to reflect upon our profession.

                        Forget EDUCATION. Education is a result, a slow result,
                        a slow growth, hard to judge. Let us talk rather about
                        Teaching and Learning, a joint activity that can be provided
                        for, though as a nation we have lost the knack of it.

       Now finishing my thirty-first year as a teacher, I have been confounded by the growing tendency for us to refer to ourselves as “educators” rather than “teachers.” “Educate” comes from the Latin “duco, ducere,” to lead. And educator “leads one forward.” “Teacher,” by contrast, comes from an Old English root meaning “to show.” I believe that we teachers, at our best, “show” our students what they may become, possibilities that already lie within them.

      For me, the most significant question of our profession still remains the most obvious one: what do we teachers do? Many have magnificently answered this question. Josiah Quincy, eighteenth century president of Harvard College defined our job as to “give a true account of the gift of reason.” Quincy’s twentieth century successor at Harvard, Neil Rudenstine, enjoins us to “keep the record as straight, honest, accurate, and comprehensive as possible.” But our role at Texas A&M International University is, I think, a student-centered one, both grander and more perilous than either Quincy or Rudenstine suggest. To illustrate what I mean, let me pose a more fundamental question. The College of Education at Laredo State University taught me that we teachers can be effective only if we understand our audience, the human subjects, the students sitting before us. Hence the inescapable question looming behind every theory of teaching becomes: What is it to be human, and how can we connect teaching to the larger question of our humanity?

      In December, 1486, a young Italian nobleman of twenty-three, Giovanni Pico, Count of Mirandola, challenged churchmen, philosophers, and scholars to a series of debates to address what he conceived as the most pressing issues of his day, topics summarized in nine hundred theses presented to Pope Innocent VIII. This pope, a seasoned administrator, did what any war-weary leader would do today with a similar challenge: he referred it to a committee, a special commission to look into the matter and to prepare for him a full report. An effective stratagem for drowning new ideas, in the fifteenth century and in the twenty-first.

      Of enormous interest to us as teachers is the short piece Pico prepared and planned to use to inaugurate the debates which, sadly, were never to take place. That document, now known to us as the “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” begins with a truth Pico della Mirandola inherited from Arab and Greek philosophers: in this state of the world, “There is nothing more wonderful than man.” We humans form the most excellent part of creation, not because we are a little lower than the angels, but because we, alone of all creations, are of “indeterminate nature, able to fashion ourselves as we will. The angel remains an angel, divine; the worm continues in his worminess; the cat forever stalks the bird. We humans, by contrast, are the “makers and molders” of ourselves, free to choose our fate. We can, if we choose, pursue excellence and ascend the great moral chain of life toward the angelic beings, or we may elect to plunge to the dark world of violence and disorder, pride and self-interest, appetite and instinct. Because, as Pico says, we have no fixed abode, because we are neither angel nor animal, we alone are the architects of our own lives. Like tiny chameleons, we can, Pico tells us, change at will our modes of behavior, our spiritual color.

      Each of us who pursues a life in the academy does so because we were touched by a great teacher and set on fire to learn what he or she knew. Our research—dialogue with our students, our fellow scholars, and ourselves— sustains the fire within. As teachers, we live out each day the truth of Pico’s insight, guiding our students as they reach for that glorious light of inner freedom. It is our solemn obligation to awaken each of our students to life’s most precious gift: the uniquely human capacity to mold a unique life. We teachers hold before our students new identities, new realities, new ways of being never before imagined in his or her particular cultural or physical reality. One born Anglo might find in the study of Spanish literature or culture his or her true self. An especially sensitive child may learn through painting or through dance or through acting or through music to develop and to express those deep emotions. A compelling introduction to the mysteries of our physical world may lead to a lifelong interest in science. A teacher consumed by his or her love for mathematics can inflame students with an appreciation of that discipline and a desire to study it.

      In short, our students should leave our University new people, changed, brimful with possibilities they had never before imagined. If all we do is help them articulate and confirm what they already were or already knew when they entered our classes, then we have failed, for we have kept from them humanity’s greatest gift, acquired through learning: the power to become what we study and to turn into life what begins as a lesson in marketing, language, math, science, or fine arts.

      We must above all things give them the good news: you can mold yourself to become the person you wish to be. Schools, colleges, and universities exist, we must tell our students, first to help you find out who you might be, and then to support you as you begin to construct your chosen identity. I once thought my greatest challenge as a teacher was to be rigorous; I have learned that rigor is of itself the easiest condition to create. Much the greater calling is to construct the environment for the student’s inner awakening.

      The great Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca, in one of his most searing lines, describes a young man, as he falls on his back to die, the outline of his face, his profile, pointed toward heaven—”viva moneda que jamás se volverá a repetir”—a live coin, struck once, a singular outline, an image never to be repeated. Each of us is the beneficiary and hence the guardian of a special portion of the human experience. In our teaching, we must, each of us, communicate our own unique vision even as we urge our students to seek their own.