The Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative: Awakening The Teacher Within

Kevin Thomas Miles, Professor of Philosophy, Earlham College
Contact at: mileske@earlham.edu

The fourth paragraph of the Earlham College Mission Statement reads: “The teaching-learning process at Earlham is shaped by a view of education as a process of awakening the “teacher within,” so that our students will become lifelong learners.  Students at Earlham are encouraged to be active, involved learners.”  It is arguably the case that The Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative has had as its principal aim putting the pedagogical values of this assertion into practice by virtue of pursuing the goals of fostering pedagogical discussions among GLCA faculty (including, but not limited to philosophy professors), supporting and sharing research in ancient Greek philosophy, and providing presentation opportunities for undergraduates to share their own research projects in this field.  The educational benefits of realizing all of these goals (and they were, in fact, realized) should be self-evident.

What The Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative did implicitly and most practically was take seriously the importance of the coupling held together by the hyphen in “teaching-learning.”  It is a common pedagogical mantra to claim that “there is no teaching where there is no learning and there is no learning where there is no teaching.”  What better way for learning to be realized than by having the learners teach what they have learned by a presentation of their research?  This is the form of action that comes into view when one speaks of the teaching-learning process “as a process of awakening the ‘teacher within.’”  The Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative was not only an opportunity to realize through praxis what is at stake in such a process, but also an invaluable opportunity to assess, by means of continuing and contiguous dialogue the praxis in which we were engaged. 

Several years of collaborative teaching have convinced me that teaching collaborations are not only excellent analytical tools employed by the professional educator in order to improve educational expertise, but are, as well, excellent analytical tools that can be employed by students who are also collaborating in the pedagogical initiative.  In the same way that professional educators recognize and realize improvement in their own teaching abilities when reminded that they are not teaching in a vacuum, so, too, do the students realize a marked elevation in their academic work when their academic work, as I argue below, is engaged in the sphere proper to it, namely, the public sphere.  It is not uncommon for students to fall prey to the mistaken supposition that the “life of the mind” is some kind of hermetic enterprise.  What The Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative has been able to establish for both faculty and students is the fundamental understanding that academic work in general and the work of philosophy in particular is not only a public engagement, but an important form of political action qua action.  This is not, of course, the place for unpacking in detail how this constitutes a societal as well as an educational benefit; suffice it to say that the famous assertion made by Plato’s Socrates at Apology 38a, specifically, that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” pertains here not simply as a matter concerning one’s intellectual life but also how one pursues the task of being a human being intent on being a good citizen in whatever community one finds oneself.  To put it a different way: the benefit to every participant in The Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative – faculty, students, and audiences – was plainly consistent with that to which Aristotle alluded when claiming that “even though it be the case that the Good is the same for the individual and for the polis, nevertheless, the good of the polis is manifestly a greater and more perfect good, both to attain and to preserve” (Nicomachean Ethics 1094b).  That is to say that insofar as The Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative worked at establishing a community of interlocutors (read polis) the work was a benefit or an Aristotelian Good to the individual participants and to the community established by it, as well as a benefit to the community in which it had been established, i.e., society at large.  And, following Aristotle: What makes the citizens Good also makes the society Good; what benefits the citizen benefits the society. It has been a longstanding belief that liberal education provides this double benefit; student participation in the classrooms and conferences is proof of it.

Additionally, it ought to be said that the teaching-learning experience of faculty, students, and audiences, necessarily involved ‘learning to see and think through the eyes of others.’  This benefit is easily overlooked in a culture that grants more privilege to making propositional assertions than it grants to the interrogative character of interlocution.  There are more than enough examples in contemporary “public” discourse to make the case that there is too much talking and not near enough listening.  The Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative modeled and required interlocution and, as the Latin roots of this word suggest, interlocution involves an interruption, a break in the speaking occupied by listening and learning.  This is, of course, an academic intuition in scholars truly interested in the lifelong pursuit of learning; it is an understanding students still have to learn.  Students learn how to listen critically to their instructors, to themselves, and to each other and out of that listening they learn that their respective opinions are adrift in a world of opinions and that not all opinions are created equal but require discernment and judgment.

Inquiring about the benefits of the teaching-learning process seems remarkably akin to inquiring about the benefits of beauty.  Who is it that asks this question and how is such a question asked? The Ancient Philosophy Teaching and Research Collaborative Initiative cleared a space for interlocution, and the listening proper to it, and, thus, opened a space for the kind of experience that sets the stage for lifelong learning in a world increasingly diverse.

Written by