Throughout my forty years or so of teaching at colleges and universities I have had the privilege and pleasure of being taught by and working with many dedicated and effective colleagues. One, more than any other, stands out as a mentor and model. Professor Randall Nelson, late of Southern Illinois University, is that man. Blinded during wartime he managed to overcome this severe handicap to become a Professor of Government but more importantly a beloved and revered teacher.
Just prior to the beginning of the 21st century there was held at SIU a memorial ceremony for Professor Nelson. Many there gave testimony to his impact on their lives. I was honored at being one of those invited to attend and participate. In addition to the many fond memories flowing from that altogether appropriate remembrance of his professional life, there was a document written by him that somehow fell into my hands. It is titled simply: "Educational Philosophy." Its eloquent simplicity reflects not only his commitment to teaching but also encapsulates the essence of my views as well. I hasten to note that as much as I would like to have always followed this guide, I fell short many times. He wrote*:
The core of my educational philosophy can be stated simply. I believe that wisdom is, for the individual, a virtue to be pursued for it's own sake. I believe further that the collective wisdom of the people is the most valuable resource of the nation. Knowledge, the acquiring of information, is the beginning of wisdom but only the beginning. Knowledge must be combined with understanding to produce wisdom. Knowledge without understanding is dilettantism. Therefore, the teacher must not only assume responsibility for transmitting information, he must necessarily convey to his students the significance of that information, how it relates to them and to the natural, economic, social, or political environment in which they live. Through a mixture of knowledge and reason, the student can be led from one plateau of understanding to another. The rare student will leave the teacher behind and ascent to plateaus that have heretofore been undiscovered. This is, I think, the process that marks the progress of civilization.
Each bit of knowledge is, I tell my students, a building block. Isolated, it may have little meaning. If another block is added, there is a relationship. The addition of new blocks lead to the discovery of new relationships. When the student is sufficiently trained, he can manipulate those blocks of knowledge and apply them to new circumstances. The student's power to analyze and to reason supersedes rote memory. He not only has a fund of knowledge, he comes to understand how that knowledge can be used. Knowledge becomes meaningful. This is the moment of triumph for both teacher and student. Therefore, I believe that the supreme accomplishment of a teacher is to convey to his students the importance and utility of the enterprise in which they are mutually engaged. Leading students down this pathway to understanding, patiently and reassuringly, is both the responsibility and the challenge which the teacher must accept.
The process requires dedication to work and sensitivity to the feelings of students. In one respect, students are like soldiers, they must be led; they cannot be driven. The teacher who would be respected must also respect the dignity and the individuality of his students. The teacher is neither a master nor a servant. This process cannot succeed without mutual respect and mutual effort. The teacher must do more than teach; he must stimulate a desire to learn in the students. He must also strive to create the classroom environment which is most conductive to this mutual enterprise.
Unfortunately for the teacher, he can seldom, if ever, know how well he has succeeded. He can only show the way, open the door as it were. His students continue without him. Their final appraisal of his contribution may be far down the road.
*Readers will, I trust, understand that the gender specific references are derivative of the era in which the piece was written and in no way intended to demean women.