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Some Philosophical Reflections on Teaching and Learning

by Peter M. Collins - 1970

THE RECORD has seldom, in recent years, published articles dealing with teaching and learning from the classical realist point of view; and we have found this one, building on the thought of Etienne Gilson, to be of particular interest. Professor Collins, who specializes in philosophy of education, emphasizes the personal relationship involved in teaching and learning, the importance of authority and the conception of an active learner. The purpose of teaching, he writes, is to cause "a personal discovery"; and he reviews several methods for achieving that end, with a special focus on the teacher's own rethinking of what he is communicating to his students.

What constitutes effective teaching and learning in such disciplines as history, literature and philosophy? What must a person do in order to teach another? What kind of authority should the teacher exert? An attempt will be made here to illustrate the dignity of the work of teaching and to draw some practical conclusions for teachers. Certain philosophical pre­suppositions, however, are required for this approach, fundamental principles which cannot be fully analyzed within the scope of this paper. Implicit is a particular view of the nature of reality and man's ability to know that reality— a vision derived primarily from what might be called classical realism.

Few activities are more common than teaching and learning; yet it is difficult to find a precise and clear explanation of the nature of these endeavors. Com­mon sense (plus some philosophical judgments) indicates that teaching is to cause another human being to change in a certain way, and that learning is the effect of that causality. But what is the nature of such a causality? What changes are effected? What changes ought to be effected? How are they wrought?

A person may learn with or without the aid of another person. When one discovers knowledge for himself, he is not being taught in the strict sense of the word. On the other hand, when one learns from another—in person or through a book—the learning is a true effect of causality placed by the other. This other is the teacher and the causality (whatever it is) exerted is teaching. Properly speaking, when one learns by himself, he has no teacher; he doesn't teach himself, he merely learns. The first essential characteristic of the teach­ing-learning situation is clear: there must be a personal relationship between two distinct human beings.1 Further analysis is induced by the question, what kind of relationship obtains between teacher and student? Since laws of nature differ in respect to human nature and purely physical nature, social science differs from natural science and the rapport of teacher and learner cannot be reduced to a scientific formula. Because the human person is a complex orga­nism composed of material and non-material elements (including emotions), a specific outcome of teaching cannot be predicted with certainty. In summariz­ing an Aristotelian doctrine and applying it to education, Brumbaugh states that "social science, in the sense in which we have natural science, is impos­sible."2 Therefore, teaching is an art which demands the instrumentality of personality. This is our second characteristic of teaching and is aptly described by Highet: "Teaching is not like inducing a chemical reaction: it is much more like painting a picture or making a piece of music, or on a lower level like planting a garden or writing a friendly letter. You must throw your heart into it, you must realize that it cannot all be done by formulas, or you will spoil your work, and your pupils, and yourself."3

Authority and Action

Thirdly, the teacher-learner relation implies the notion of authority. This is evident from an analysis of causation. A cause possesses a capacity to act upon another (for example, a carpenter who is to form a log into a canoe), or else it could not be a cause; and an effect must not already possess that by which it becomes an effect of this cause. The fact of inequality between cause and effect, thus between teacher and pupil, is evident. The inequality does not lie in nature, nor neces­sarily in intellectual ability, nor even in general knowledge, but at least in this particular knowledge to be communicated. If this were not true, then the per­son designated as teacher would have nothing to teach and, in this instance, would not be a teacher at all. Due to this kind of priority the teacher possesses authority and has a responsibility to use it.

A fourth essential principle is this: the student is an active, cognitive being. Therefore, teaching another human being cannot properly be compared to lighting a stick of wood (or forming a log into a canoe). Implications of this fact are highly significant. First of all, the learner possesses a power of knowing which is an active function as natural to the human being as eating, sleeping, breathing and walking. If this knowing process is so natural to a human being, one might well wonder why children frequently appear indisposed to being taught. Two reasons may be adduced: 1) perhaps the teaching, as a matter of fact, is not what it should be; and 2) the development of powers of apprehension, abstract reasoning, and judgment, as well as the function of attaching intrinsically unrelated symbols to ideas, are themselves very difficult and highly demanding (which does not make them unnatural, however).4 These two factors lead to a second implication of the learner's active cognition: a prime responsibility of the teacher lies in motivating students to want to learn. For if they have no intellectual curiosity, which might well be a more comfortable position, they will learn nothing. This curiosity, though natural to man, must be provoked.5 How is the teacher to do it? Ultimately through his or her per­sonality in responding to the particular student or group of students. But are there any general rules? Certainly interest must hold the first place, and that can be obtained in many cases through a clear analysis of a problem and demonstration of its relevance and importance for the students personally. Now this relevance delineated for students should be intrinsic—from the na­ture of the subject matter at hand. For example, a teacher of philosophy can ex­plain the importance of the question of an openness to God in terms of the infinite difference that it makes regarding the nature of man, and then how that concept—of man—affects man's approach to reality, and how that ap­proach affects the actual rearrangement of the world. If demonstrating this kind of usefulness, as well as the inherent worth of knowing for the sake of humanization, as such, fails to impel students to learn, one must turn to the practical (rather than the useful)6—for example, learning philosophy in order to become a teacher and earn a living (or, studying in order to graduate in order to get a job in order to make a living). The particular mode of stimulat­ing students to learn is determined by the personality of the teacher and other immediate circumstances. The importance and necessity of accomplishing it somehow is evident. Gilson's comment is apropos: ". . . to obtain from the pupil this effort upon himself which he can see no reason to give, except the words we say, is the highest and noblest part of the work of the teacher."7

The fifth principle underlying the art of teaching is actually a corollary of the fourth: no man can understand anything for another. Recall that the stu­dent's power of knowing is an active one; the student must learn for himself, which means that the work of the teacher is to promote the student's self-learning. The proper effect, then, of teaching is the causation of a personal discovery in the mind of the learner. A discovery of what? Of principles in their proper order. This is what the teacher communicates, but he communicates not in the sense of giving his own principles but in the sense of causing the student to discover for himself. If a teacher does not do this, in a sense he accomplishes nothing, for "no master can take his own knowledge out of his own mind and put it in the heads of his pupils. The only thing he can do is to help them to put it themselves into their own minds."8

Teaching  Methods     

 The question of teaching methods arises: how does one communicate this order of principles? This is usually attempted in one of two ways (or a combination of them): lecture and dialog. Before commenting on either of these means, one should mention a few pedagogical considerations relevant to both. The purposes (specific out­comes to be pursued) and the scope of the plan for the entire course should be clearly explained.9

Each part must be carefully related to the whole ex­plicitly and constantly. And each class, each section of the matter, and the course itself should be carefully summarized and concluded. According to Highet:

To undertake to teach a complex subject without organizing one's treatment of it so as to bring out its structure, and to discuss an artistic subject without giving, in one's own teaching, a semblance of the order and harmony which are essential attributes of art, is to neglect an important opportunity of teaching something greater and more important than any set of facts, to discourage one's pupils, and to falsify one's own true appreciation of the subject.10

The student must understand individual principles and ideas, but unless he can relate them to other principles and ideas in the same field—as well as to those of other branches of knowledge—he has not truly learned. So the teacher must not only communicate, the order of his own course and branch of knowl­edge, but must also relate that to other methods of knowing and kinds of knowl­edge. (For example, it must be demonstrated by a teacher of philosophy that the philosophical method differs in nature from the scientific, and that the kinds of conclusions reached by each method vary qualitatively.)

The aim and essence of the activity of teaching are not altered by the method used. The question as to which method is best is very easy to answer: neither. It is this writer's opinion that with its proper variations, each has a place and should be used according to circumstances. Two objections are sometimes posed by students. First, they claim that reading can and should replace classes because much less time would be wasted. This may be true, depending upon particular teachers and classes; however, we are concerned here with ideals of teaching, not particular persons or instances. Reading and listening to a lecture amount to essentially the same thing. Yet a major differ­ence is seen in that in the one case an inert object acts as the instrument, whereas in the other a live person (hopefully!) performs the function. Since no book can react to the reader's objections and comments, the teacher has something more to offer. There is no substitution for person-to-person contact in teaching and learning. The living, spoken word, emitted in an atmosphere of trust and confidence, is almost infinitely more potent for communicating ideas than the printed word. Regardless of numerous disappointments at the hands of fellow human beings, a person instinctively feels closer to man than to inert materials. Nevertheless, lectures should not replace reading—both are necessary. The teacher, in this respect, serves to guide the student in his choice of reading.

A second objection hinges on the authority of the teacher and the freedom of the learner. Some claim that, in lecturing, a person is not really teaching. The class, in order to effect true learning, must be carried on by means of ques­tions and answers, or discussion in some form. This objection seems to be based upon a faulty notion of what a lecture is, and perhaps of what teaching itself is. Let us turn, with an eye to justifying the validity of both methods, to the essence of teaching as such.

Essence of Teaching      

The immediate purpose of teaching has been discussed—to cause a personal discovery in the mind of the learner. We have adverted to different methods of realizing this end. The question now is, what is common to any method of teaching? Upon what, pre­cisely, does the teacher's success depend? Gilson puts it very bluntly: "In order to cause his pupil to invent learning, he himself must invent again what he is teaching, or, rather, he must go again, before his pupils, through the whole process, now familiar to him, of the invention of each and every truth."11 In order to teach his students how to think, the teacher must be actually thinking, much as he did in grasping the subject matter for the first time. The student learns how to think, not from summaries, reports of facts, and digests, but from thinking with a living being (teacher) who knows how to think and is here and now doing so. An understanding of this situation helps one to grasp the postulate that teaching and learning are essentially the same function; they differ only in that the former is re-learning and is done publicly (in the presence of at least one other). The teaching of the teacher is precisely his living relearning in communion with another. The explanation of Pegis is particularly noteworthy:

. . . the teacher of ideas cannot merely summarize or report what he has learned from others or discovered for himself. If he is to teach here and now, he must relive here and now the very process that he followed or that was necessary to his own learning, and he must relive his learning in the presence of his students. To be sure, this does not mean that a teacher must re-enact his own personal history in order to communicate what he has learned. But he must relive the intellectual process that was necessary to his own learning and that is now necessary to the learning of others. For it is this intellectual re-learning, relived and re-experienced, present, active and fresh, that is at the beginning of the learning of the student. A student can learn only from and in the living process of learning; he cannot learn from summaries and reports and digests, however objective. This living process of learning is the life of the teacher at the moment of teaching. In teaching, the teacher shares this living process with his students, not indeed in the sense of giving it to them, since this he cannot do, but so that, by liv­ing within the intelligible world that is the active relearning contained in the teaching of the teacher, the student may be directed and awakened to learn for himself.12

When this occurs in a classroom, meaningful conclusions arise spontaneously; students not only know, they know why, and they tend to remember—es­pecially if the whole process is introduced in terms of a problem or question which is made relevant to their lives.

Two of several implications of this view of teaching demand brief com­ment. First of all, we must return to the concept of authority and distinguish between the teacher's authority with respect to teaching and with respect to the truth (keeping constantly in mind that a particular view of the nature of man and of truth underlies these remarks). In regard to the latter, the teacher stands as an equal with his students; he has no more authority than they to dictate or designate or supply the truth. The truth is not had because the teacher says so, but because through his reason, he has discovered where it lies and what it means. And the student, possessing the same faculties, is capable of, and responsible for, doing the same. This fact elaborated provides the phil­osophical basis for the idea of "community of scholars" so widely desired, yet infrequently found, on college and university campuses. In matters of truth itself the criterion is evidence, which is to be presented for appropriation by students; the teacher may appeal to his greater experience and background in learning, but ultimately the truths he presents have no more validity than the evidence he brings to bear. Concerning the communicability of the truth, on the other hand, the teacher must take the initiative and exert his authority; he must assume responsibility for saying and doing that which will initiate and/ or continue the learning of the student. For example, the teacher is responsible for certain decisions to be made in determining the course content, specific requirements of the course, dates of quizzes and exams, etc. In these matters the final criterion is the (reasonable) will of the teacher; he may and must exercise some authority directly.

The second implication concerns the application of these ideas to different branches of knowledge and at varying levels of learning. It seems sound and necessary to say at least that the principles do apply to the teaching of all disciplines (branches of knowledge) at all levels in some way. Bruner empha­sizes this in saying that ". . . the foundations of any subject may be taught to anybody at any age in some form" and that "intellectual activity anywhere is the same, whether at the frontier of knowledge or in a third-grade classroom."13 All students in all courses (with some allowance made for the "skill" subjects) should be taught how to think. And, as we have seen, this demands that teach­ers think in the process of teaching—which implies that they think in prepar­ing their classes. The subject matter must be thought out in terms of present­ing it to this particular person or group of persons.

Also relevant to this perspective on the essence of teaching is the distinction between the only two possible kinds of lives—the contemplative and the active. Since teaching consists in "communicating to others a truth meditated before­hand,"14 the teacher partakes of both worlds. He must contemplate the truth and then communicate it. In this instance, the two aspects of life are continuous and unified rather than disjointed because the activity is merely an extension and fulfillment of the contemplation. And in true teaching, contemplation is sometimes not only continued, but also enhanced—the teacher might better understand a truth by means of his own re-thinking or as a result of suggestions and questions of his students.


As we have seen, to teach is to cause another to learn. Allowing for differing applications in various situations, "to learn" means to learn how to think. This should be a prime outcome of the educational process as such—the thinking man. In this essay the writer has attempted to delineate some of the theoretical and practical principles which promote this end.

In considering how to teach your own discipline, it seems that three ele­ments must be constantly considered: 1) first principles, 2) methods of thought, and 3) conclusions. The first principles represent a starting point and frame of reference from which the method is launched. Conclusions are sim­ply the results. Two points must be underlined. First, conclusions are not the most significant aspect of a discipline. And in themselves they are insignificant, in a sense. By this I intend that students who are taught merely conclusions are not taught at all. The aim of a teacher must be to free the student from dependence upon him; to the extent that the student learns only conclusions, he will have to keep returning to the teacher to have his conclusions reviewed and replenished. On the other hand, if students are made aware of the im­portance and relevance of problems, then stimulated to discover the ground for evidence and to utilize the appropriate methods, they are able to draw their own conclusions, and with sufficient guidance and persistence, to one day do so without the help of the teacher. This is the way scholars are formed.

The second point is this: the fundamental principles and methods of each science are peculiar to that science. The same is true of the conclusions. So the various disciplines in the schools, colleges, and universities must be taught by persons who possess the habit of their specialty and the know-how needed for communicating the order of dependence and development among ideas.

The result of this kind of effort, as has been indicated, is a person able to learn independently (that is, competent to discover and discern truth for him­self).15 To learn is to be original, at least in the sense that one must appropriate for himself conclusions rendered intelligible by means of a method of thought exercised here and now.

It is hoped that the reader will see in these remarks at least a partial answer to the frequent objection that teaching (especially lecturing) is a presentation of cut-and-dried absolute truths. The objection may fit a particular past in­stance; but must that be so? No. In fact, one who is interested in teaching the truth can never convey the impression that he has the answers once and for all (at least in attempts to explain reality). Teaching must be question-oriented. We can and do find truth, but the search must be constant. The human condi­tion demands it.16

Another hope is cherished—that the reader will view the concept of author­ity explicated above not as conducing to the restruction of learning, but to the freeing of learning. An abuse of authority (authoritarianism) warps young (and old) minds; proper use of authority makes possible true thought and the humanization of the world.

Finally, one might object to the risk incurred in true learning. That is a noteworthy complaint. In thinking one does risk—himself as well as his friends and the whole world, perhaps. However, when the risk is weighed against the loss of the possibility of becoming truly human, one should choose the former.


1   Étienne Gilson, "The Eminence of Teaching," in A. C. Pegis, Ed., A Gilson Reader. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Co., Image Books, 1957.

2   Robert B. Brumbaugh and Nathaniel M. Lawrence. Philosophers on Education. Bos­ton: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1963. Also, cf. Robert G. Olson, "Science and Existen­tialism," cited in Van Cleve Morris, Existentialism in Education. New York: Harper and Row, 1966, p. 67.

3   Gilbert Highet. The Art of Teaching. New York: Random House, Inc., Vintage Books, 1950.

4   H. Stanley Carroll, "The Art of Teaching:  Its Philosophical Basis," The Philosophy of Christian Education. Proceedings of the Western Division of the ACPA, 1941.

5   Gilson, op. cit., p. 303. Cf. also Brumbaugh and Lawrence, op. cit., pp. 31-32.

6   Gilson, "Education and Higher Learning," A Gilson Reader. The term "practical" here refers to extrinsic relevance, "useful" to intrinsic relevance.

7   Gilson, "The Eminence of Teaching," p. 303.

8 Ibid., pp. 304-06.

9 Highet, op. cit., p. 69.

10 Ibid., p. 80.

11  Gilson, “The Eminence of Teaching,” p. 306.

12   Anton C. Pegis, "Teaching and the Freedom to Learn," in Anton C. Pegis, Ed., Truth and the Philosophy of Teaching. West Hartford, Connecticut: St. Joseph College, 1954.

13   Jerome Bruner. The Process of Education. New York: Random House, Inc., 1960.

14   Gikon, "The Christian Teacher," A Gilson Reader, p. 224.

15   Cf. fetienne Gilson. History of Philosophy and Philosophical Education. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1948.

16   Cf. Josef Pieper. The Silence of St. Thomas. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1957.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 71 Number 3, 1970, p. 413-422
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1743, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:56:10 AM

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