Below is a slightly edited version of the National Honor Society Induction talk that I gave:
NHS Induction 2013
Congratulations and thanks to the inductees; your quotidian excellence inspires all of us. Congratulations, also, to the parents, the families and the friends of the inductees on this wonderful evening. I know from experience that the support of one’s family, friends, and community is critical to being able to do the best work one is capable of and so I’d like to thank my wife Donna for her support of me.
In addition to the work of the students and their parents, a large part of the reason we are here is a result of the work of the faculty and I’m going to reflect a bit on what teachers do. George Bernard Shaw famously observed that, “those who can do, those who cannot, teach.” This is NOT true, as I’ll demonstrate in a moment, but its corollary that “those who can’t teach become administrators,” well, that may be true.
I think that teaching is the most evanescent art – no syllabus or transcription, no test or book list, no PowerPoint presentation or digital recording, no podcast, blog, or holographic representation can capture the interaction that happens in a classroom—that interaction is lost forever to time when the bell rings—and yet the excitement, the passion, the arguments, and the ideas often remain as an enduring afterimage—continuing to mold both teacher and student—long after the partnership that made that moment is past. Recreating what made a class great is a bit like explaining a joke—if you already got it nothing needs to be said—if you have to explain it you won’t be able to recreate the experience.
A teacher’s job, I contend, exists at the nexus of the four-fold mandate of the NHS: Scholarship, Leadership, Character, and Service.
One of my favorite books is Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and in it he argues that one’s character should be both pious about and playful with ideas. If piety towards ideas hypertrophies, or overdevelops, the person becomes an unthinking, unreflective, uncritical worshipper of his or her own ideas, a fanatic—and this, it scarcely needs be said, is dangerous. If the “scholar” only plays with ideas—lacking reverence and discipline—then the respect due the life of the mind will be missing and all ideas will be subject to sardonic wisecracks.
A teacher, too, should welcome and live with this tension of piety and playfulness, because teaching is a schizophrenic or—perhaps better said—a dichotomous profession. Teachers are by definition conservatives—that is—they are conservators of knowledge. They teach because they believe that there is something worth transmitting to another generation. But teachers are also liberals—they should play with ideas, interrogate the tradition, demand that we see things from new angles, and insist that we question authority and examine our methods. Good teachers can usually do one or the other of these tasks, that is, ground students in a tradition that retraces the steps taken in previous experiments or follow lines of critical inquiry that have been established. The merely good teacher could have students investigate their traditions and embrace a sort of radical doubt. The great teacher presents tradition with respect and helps one acquire the tools to test and investigate the tradition. He or she communicates to the student a reverence for tradition—but that reverence is never presented uncritically or unreflectively. The great teacher also demonstrates that mere criticism, or academic snarkiness, is a hollow, nihilistic pursuit; it is not—no matter the level of vocabulary or intellect—scholarship.
Leadership and service are two sides of the same coin—teachers lead class by serving their disciplines and their students. Let’s consider a model of servant-leadership. I think of Jesus the master teacher who feeds the crowd—and teaches them; the Jesus who washes the feet of others, who honors the rabbinical tradition, who renders unto Caesar—and the Jesus who radically changes the commandments, insists that we do for the least of our brothers and sisters and the Jesus who explodes traditional notions of kingship.
I thank the NHS tonight for acknowledging a wonderful teacher, who also stands for all of the exemplary teachers from whom all of us learn daily. Where does the next generation of teacher come from? I’d like to believe that it comes from you.
In Plato’s dialogue, The Meno, Socrates asks that rhetorician, “How then should we live our lives?” And whether we are conscious of it or not our lives are the answer to that question—I hope that we will answer that question by living lives of Scholarship, Leadership, Character and Service—and if we do—I suspect that we will have lived the good life and given the good answer.