Thursday, June 18, 2015

Gilbert Highet on the Art of Teaching

I read through much of Gilbert Highet's The Art of Teaching a dozen years ago. Coming back to it after a decade in the classroom and after reading a good handful of other books on college teaching, I am reminded why I liked it so much: Highet writes well, tells great stories--click here for one example--and the book is still chock-full of good advice 65 years after it was first published. No wonder, for by all accounts Highet was himself an outstanding teacher.

To whet your appetite, here are Highet's 5 essentials of good teaching:

  1. "First, and most necessary of all, he must know the subject. He must know what he teaches. ... Therefore teaching is inseparable from learning. Every good teacher will learn more about his subject every year--every month, every week if possible. ... A limited field of material stirs very few imaginations. It can be learned off by heart, but seldom creatively understood and never loved. A subject that carries the mind out in limitless journeys will, if it is well taught, make the learner eager to master all the preliminary essentials and press on." (12, 14)
  2.  "The second essential is that he must like [the subject]. The two are connected, for it is almost impossible to go on learning anything year after year without feeling a spontaneous interest in it ... [T]o dislike the entire subject, to be a history teacher and be bored by history, to teach French and never open a French book at home, that must be either a constant pain or a numbing narcosis. Think how astonished you would be if your doctor told you that personally he really cared nothing about the art of healing, that he never read the medical journals and paid no attention to new treatments for common complaints, that apart from making a living he thought it completely unimportant whether his patients were sick or sound, and that his real interest was mountain-climbing. You would change your doctor." (18-19)
  3. "The third essential of good teaching is to like the pupils. If you do not actually like boys and girls, or young men and young women, give up teaching. It is easy to like the young because they are young. They have no faults, except the very ones which they are asking you to eradicate: ignorance, shallowness, and inexperience. The really hateful faults are those which we grown men and women have. Some of these grow on us like diseases, others we build up and cherish as though they were virtues. Ingrained conceit, calculated cruelty, deep-rooted cowardice, slobbering greed, vulgar self-satisfaction, puffy laziness of mind and body--these and the other real sins result from years, decades of careful cultivation. They show on our faces, they ring harsh or hollow in our voices, they have become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. The young do not sin in those ways. Heaven knows they are infuriatingly lazy and unbelievably stupid and sometimes detestably cruel--but not for long, not all at once, and not (like grown-ups) as a matter of habit or policy. They are trying to be energetic and wise and kind. When you remember this, it is difficult not to like them." (25)
  4. "[W]ithin limits" the good teacher should "know his pupils." (48)
  5. "He or she should know much else. The good teacher is a man or woman of exceptionally wide and lively intellectual interests....Teachers in schools and colleges must see more, think more, and understand more than the average man and woman of the society in which they live" (48-49).
But do check out the book for yourself. Parts of it are dated, to be sure, but it is, I think, still one of the best books on the subject.

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