Discipline, Deadlines, and Dedication: A Philosophy of Learning
by CHARLIE LAWING
I have worked as a professional educator since 1980. In those three decades, I have taught cartooning courses, fine-arts courses, theatre and performing-arts courses, American history and other humanities courses, "experiential-learning" courses (wherein students run around, fall in the dirt, and have fun), and courses for pre-schoolers, kindergärtners, grade-schoolers, middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, college and university students, and seniors. And in each setting I've tried to foster the belief that every person has the capacity to learn anything they wish to learn--if they exercise discipline, meet deadlines, and approach their dreams with serious dedication.
When teachers "teach" they teach not only subject matter; they teach how to think, how to do, how to be. If teachers show up to class late and unprepared, they teach their students to be careless. If they don't establish firm deadlines when assignments are due, they teach their students that delivery is unimportant. And if teachers are disinterested in learning outcomes, they teach their students that professionalism is optional.
Live & Learn
Yet while motivating students to learn is important it is not nearly as important as motivating them to live. Thus, because the classroom is a microcosm of society at large, I believe it is critical that teachers recognize the humanity in every student. It is also critical that we recognize the humanity in our colleagues, in our supervisors, and in ourselves. For our duty as teachers is to illuminate human potential. And illumination means clearing paths, uncovering illusions, and shining a light on hope and opportunity.
In Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1942), the late anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote about humankind's "system of basic needs," an observation that for many years has informed my teaching philosophy:
The basic behavioral needs are part of the system of basic needs with which we are all born. These are the need for love, friendship, sensitivity, thinking, knowing, learning, organization, curiosity, wonder, imagination, creativity, open-mindedness, flexibility, experimental-mindedness, resiliency, enthusiasm, touching, sense of humor, joyfulness, laughter, tears, optimism, honesty, trust, dance, song, and compassionate intelligence.
Montagu's phrase "compassionate intelligence" guides me most. For intelligence without compassion is something less than knowledge, and the opposite of education. And ironically, sadly, frustratingly, compassionate intelligence is something that many of us as administrators in higher education have lost somewhere along the way.
The Peter Principle
There is a connotation to the phrase "higher education" that is oftentimes in error, for it suggests that not only do students encounter higher levels of learning above and beyond secondary education, but that the loftiest of moral and ethical ideals are bestowed in those hallowed halls of academia. And, in the classroom, this is sometimes--if not usually--true. Teachers represent the heart and soul of educational institutions, for they teach not so much to impart subject matter as to share with their charges ideals that indeed are morally and ethically lofty: tolerance, justice, patience, respect, understanding. But we administrators--we who started our careers in education as teachers--too many of us have followed the Peter Principle, which recognizes that "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." Not because we are incompetent people; indeed, we proved otherwise in the classroom. No, it is because teaching is an art and teachers are artists, whereas administration is management and administrators are managers. And being an artist and being a manager may require different attributes and personalities; sometimes different morals, ethics, and ideals.
Because we once were very competent teachers, our employers moved us into higher positions. "You can see on campuses all the time what happens with promotions," wrote the late professor of mythology Joseph Campbell: "you move up, up, up, until you are in administration, and it uses up everything you've got." It's the nature of the beast. Administrating doesn't provide time for thoughtful reflection; nor does administration want it. For administrating is about managing multiple duties and fixing problems as quickly as--indeed, quicker than--possible. Teaching requires thought and analysis; administrating requires decision and action. Teaching and administrating are mutually exclusive career paths.
Or are they? And, if they are, must they always be? Are there not career paths for artists who wish to share what they have learned about teaching with those whose jobs are to administer--and, hopefully, improve--education programs?
This philosophy calls for a self-appraisal of my own strengths and weaknesses, which are the same attribute: compassion. The same compassion that is effective for me as a teacher is not as effective for me as an administrator, for it causes me to reflect and analyze studiously, whereas my duties as an administrator require me to decide and act quickly--with as little reflection and analysis as possible. Yet, having worked in education for thirty years, I am convinced that the loss of compassion has turned many competent teachers into too many incompetent administrators.
As an administrator, I trip over my own incompetence when I hastefully rush toward shortcuts, trying to detour around compassion; when in my haste to be disciplined I forget that being compassionate and showing compassion require the same sort of discipline that is required of our other "more important" administrative responsibilities. Compassion and discipline spring from the same root of the tree from which grow the fruits of education and knowledge. Discipline, deadlines, and dedication; compassion, education and knowledge: these are all branches of our communal family tree.