The Teacher as an Artist

Socrates Instructing the Young on Self-Knowledge, by Pier Francesco Mola

Most of us have at one time or another had a teacher who knew his subject well, but who was generally unable to communicate it to students. The existence of this sort of person reveals a basic truth: that teachers, though they must possess knowledge, are not primarily defined by that knowledge. A physicist has science about matter in motion, but a physics teacher, in addition to having such science, also possesses the art of forming minds and hearts. Apart from knowing their subjects, teachers must above all have the ability to shape persons, because at its core, teaching is the art of forming good human beings, especially in their personal capacities of mind and heart.

This fact should give teachers pause. To have a hand in shaping a human person is a heavy responsibility, and the consequences of failure are severe. But there is perhaps some comfort to be had in considering the inherent limitations of the art, which is not, after all, entirely under the teacher’s control or subject to the “free creations of the human mind.” Unlike the sculptor and the painter, who give being to new forms in clay and on canvas, the teacher does not directly create truth in the mind or impress goodness upon the heart. Rather, as the doctor disposes a patient’s body to attain health according to its own nature and by its own power, so the teacher disposes minds and hearts to attain truth and goodness. And since truth and goodness are not psychological projections, but real values rooted in the fabric of being, they are not within the teacher’s power to create. As an artist, therefore, the teacher does not aim to fashion new forms in his students, but only to assist students in receiving the forms of truth and goodness that are already given in reality. 

This “supporting” role that is assigned to the teacher necessarily makes the act of teaching a secondary, rather than a primary, cause of human development, but at the same time it places a serious obligation upon the teacher to live in faithful service to the truth. Because the human person naturally develops through direct relations of the mind and heart to corresponding values in reality itself, the teacher must act as a “channel” for those values by focusing them within himself. Martin Buber writes that to educate “means to give decisive effective power to a selection of the world which is concentrated and manifested in the educator.” It is the duty of the teacher, therefore, to manifest and magnify the truth in his own person, so that the student’s encounter with the teacher will also be an encounter with truth. In some real sense, the teacher must be what is being taught.

As an artist, therefore, the teacher works upon the minds and hearts of students in order to aid in the formation of proper and abiding relationships with what is True and Good. This formation occurs primarily in moments of personal encounter between the teacher and the student, and the possibility of its success depends upon a teacher’s own deep-rooted orientation toward those objectively given values. Real teachers are those who live in simple obedience to the truth and who can address themselves to the innermost beings of their students. Where these qualities are absent, there will be no conscious education of the human person.