This post first appeared on the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Thursday, July 15, 2010. I adapted this column from remarks I made upon receiving Metropolitan State University’s 2010 Alumnus Award.

Teaching, learning and hemlock

Creating capacity for dialogue — with one’s self

Gov. Tim Pawlenty used a recent appearance with Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’ to promote his market elixir for the purported ills of higher education. If his idea of an ‘iCollege’ were to become the norm, liberal arts professors like me would have little choice but to join Socrates in drinking the hemlock.

“Can’t I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from wherever I feel like?” he said. “And instead of paying thousands of dollars, can I pay $199 for iCollege instead of 99 cents for iTunes?”

Implicit in this sound bite lurks a philosophy of education: College is primarily a consumer transaction. Pawlenty’s business model makes no mention of quality, rigor, or critical thought. In his iCollege, the development of well-educated persons and well-informed citizens would take a back seat to the convenience and cost of buying credentials online.

Gov. Pawlenty: Socrates and I beg to differ. If only teaching and learning were so effortless. Let me assure you, as a college teacher and lifelong learner, they are not.

Education does not occur within the head of a teacher or between the ears of a student. Instruction takes place in that mysterious space between educator and pupil. The teaching-learning process is a dialogue — and nothing demonstrates this truth like its absence in a classroom, or online. The educator speaks and gestures inarticulately; the pupil sits mutely, mystified by the charade. The teacher pretends to teach and the student pretends to learn.

Monologues like this are a perversion of teaching and learning. What is more common in classrooms and online is what the social philosopher Martin Buber calls “technical dialogue.” In this circumstance, the educator transmits knowledge and skills and students receive and utilize these tools. The transaction is only skin-deep. Technical education seeks competence, not the meaning of life.

In genuine dialogue, teachers bring not just knowledge and skills but their deepest selves to the encounter. The purpose of this vulnerability is to reduce the distance between the instructor and the pupil. This dialogical moment creates a sacred space, what Buber calls the “between.” Within this realm — for both the teacher and the learner — intellect encounters heart and soul. “Good teachers,” writes the educator Parker Palmer, “join self and subject and students into the fabric of life.”

Once the student embarks on this journey of self-discovery, the quest for meaning is transcendent. A true educator does not impose but seeks only to further the student’s personal destiny. For Buber, this ends the educational process. I would argue that he neglects a crucial final step in teaching and learning.

Whether it is an introductory course or a senior seminar, I begin each class by telling the students that it is my intention to help them kill their teachers. (Since my demanding nature always rubs a few students the wrong way, I take the precaution of explaining that my meaning is metaphorical, not literal.) This invariably baffles beginning students, as it should. My remark is like a Zen koan, a riddle to ruminate upon until understood. If it still puzzles a senior, I realize I am only one semester away from failing as an educator. What is the point of my tutelage? Pursuing their own counsel, students must leave their teachers behind, no matter how cherished or respected. Teachers, on the other hand, should welcome such autonomy, seeking intellectual peers, not disciples.

Socrates describes this last stage as “a discourse that the mind carries on with itself about any subject it is considering.” Carrying on a dialogue with oneself is the hallmark of becoming one’s own teacher. This capacity for contemplation has always been the ideal outcome of a liberal arts education. The most valuable endowment that any university possesses is a wealth of such graduates — and wise the society that invests in their education.