Fundamentally, I am a teacher. That entails my acquiring knowledge from many sources and dispensing that disparate knowledge in coherent ways to unformed minds.
Teachers make contributions to society only indirectly. We don’t directly build bridges, create new technologies, or provide landscaping services. We don’t heal people using pharmaceuticals, nor do we judge legal cases, nor do we drive delivery trucks, nor create musical compositions. Instead, we equip others to do such things. It’s akin to a volleyball player who “sets up” the teammate who will spike the ball and score the point, or the basketball player who does an “assist,” lobbing the ball to the player who is defying gravity, flying through the air, who then takes the ball and slams it into the basket, scoring the points for his team. We teachers don’t score the points for society directly. We set up others to be capable of doing so.
As a teacher, I have been a keen observer of other teachers. I am sad to say that most teachers come across as authoritarian – “I am saying it, therefore it is true, and you can take that to the bank. Do not doubt me.”
I’ve approached my craft as a teacher differently. While I do believe that what I tell students is useful, valid, and even true, I can’t be 100% certain of that. Surely, I know only a smidgen of “truth” which I dispense to my students, but that means there is an ocean of truth I do not bequeath to my students because I am ignorant of it. Plus, I am keenly aware that even the things I teach could be open to criticism, as what I teach is only fragmentary at best, and certainly not the whole story.
What to do?
I tell my students on Day 1 that while I do not wish to turn them into cynics, I do wish to turn them into skeptics – to be skeptical about most everything, including even what I teach them.
I am rather confident that if more people would be skeptical by nature, fewer people would be hoodwinked into believing much of the deceit and knavery that passes for unvarnished reality, blindly accepted. There would be less treachery, fewer cases of fraud, smaller amounts of betrayal, a drop in con-artistry. It’s not that the con-artists would no longer try; it’s that fewer of them would succeed, which would frustrate them. Their lack of success might even cause them to give up their trade and try something more honorable.
Another benefit that could come from a more skeptical populace would be greater innovation. Why do I say that? Because when we get a new innovation – a basic innovation such as a laptop computer or a smart phone or an automobile – the lack of skepticism in us causes us to blindly assume “we have arrived” as we accept that technology wholly, imagining it is the final word on the subject, and we stop reaching for even greater technology. We do this because we believe the technology has “solved” a problem, so we stop looking for an even greater solution. We become complacent. (Note: I am not talking about micro-changes in a technology, such as moving from the iPhone 14 to the iPhone 15. I’m talking about quantum leaps in innovation, such as jettisoning the iPhone altogether because a whole new tool has been invented that makes the iPhone an ancient relic).
A skeptical individual wonders whether there’s more out there to be discovered. They eschew complacency and they are filled with wonder and a quest for what’s possible. They ignore the constraints of history and they go off and do something remarkable.
That is what I believe the noble cause of teaching is meant to foster.
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