Teaching and the Noble Work of Education

by Larry P. Arnn, President
Hillsdale College

In our day, many think of education as filling empty heads with the trendy notions of the times. Indeed, elites tend now to think that is all that it has ever been. Instead, education has a timeless—and much more demanding—purpose. It properly develops the mind and improves the heart of students.
This means that, rightly speaking, education cultivates our ability to recognize what is true and encourages our desire for what is genuinely good. Hillsdale College was founded for precisely that. 

Recently, I have been criticized for pointing out that this service to genuine education is not what many institutions do. While so many teachers are dedicated to improving minds and hearts, and nearly all parents wish for the same, too many of our so-called “educational” institutions have exchanged this ancient and noble purpose for a mess of pottage—for indoctrination into the politically correct notions of the moment. 

In the opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, we’re told that the human being “stretches himself out to know.” To know what? Our own natures, certainly, and the world we live in. And even something of our ultimate purpose and meaning. All of this desire to know is within us by nature, and teachers guide and direct what is a natural “stretching” for the truth. 

Yet this stretching is accompanied by our various habits, our leanings, our desires, and so there is a great deal of “character” that bears immediately on what and how we learn, too. This is why proper education concerns the “heart” as well as the mind. The whole person is educated, not some cog in a wheel of social compliance. We have all benefitted from teachers who understand this, who lead us to see reality for what it is rather than merely to “adopt views.” We have been the beneficiaries of teachers who inspire our desires for the good rather than merely corral behavior. And we are grateful. 

The best teachers are like the best parents; they never cease to wonder at the world or at the children, and they love both in their way. This is why parents and teachers form a natural partnership. Though each party has its sphere and its responsibility, neither claims authority from some remote and impersonal “expertise” aloof from the realities before them. They each have grounded and immediate knowledge of the particular children present, and it is this knowledge that gives purchase to whatever more general knowledge they may have. 

Of course, genuine education requires teachers who possess a high degree of knowledge of the fields they teach. They must possess authority in order to help the students grow in their minds and characters. Properly realized, a classroom is a disciplined place, yes, but one animated by love of the knowledge they gain, by wonder, by gratitude, and by a keen sense of mutual honor. What a sublime place such a classroom is! 

And what of the things students should learn? For all the vexation there is about curriculum, and without denying the serious thought that it requires, the outlines are surely simple. The fundamentals of human reasoning require the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students need to understand the fundamentals of the natural world as well as have a wonder-filled grasp of its complexity, detail, and exuberant variety. The humanities, too, are neither superfluous nor decorative. They are the stuff whereby we become most fully human, whereby we “stretch out” toward ourselves at our best and truest. Thus history, literature, music, the arts, philosophy—here we see what we really are. 

At Hillsdale College we know—from both experience and principle—the authority that teachers and parents have in the noble work of education. We profess this in all that we do, but especially through our work in K-12 education. No remote system of control or bureaucracy can supplant the knowledge, interests, and love that local communities bring to bear—primarily through parents and teachers—on the education of the young. As Hillsdale was founded to advance education, we will ever promote these great truths and the practices that arise from them. It is our mission, and we will not shrink from it.