Columnists

Thomas Ponniah
Pedagogy, mentoring and innovation

| February 27, 2013
Image: SPDP/Flickr

In an earlier column I noted that the book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (John Wiley & Sons 2010) by Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett and Norman, provided the reader with a thoughtful formalist pedagogy -- meaning a science of teaching -- that emphasized the key techniques that would most effectively enable students to learn. In today's column I touch on one aspect of the art of pedagogy, that is, not on the technical procedures that enable understanding, but the incitement to knowledge provided by good instructors. This aspect of education is significant because our era with its perpetual criticism of educators and its misinformed attempts at replacing teachers with technology seems to conceal from itself the importance of mentoring.

In terms of investigating pedagogy an interesting work to read is the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's essay "Schopenhauer as Educator" (1874). Over the past century Nietzsche has been appropriated by both conservatives and radicals, with the former utilizing his "military school of life" aphorisms such as "what does not kill me makes me stronger" to justify the right of the elite to devour the rest, and the latter -- usually postmodern anarchists -- using his perspectivist epistemology to legitimate a plural radical democracy. "Schopenhauer as Educator" is an uneven work that does not embody Nietzsche's full complexity as do some of his later books such as The Gay Science (1887) or Twilight of the Idols (1888), but there are moments especially in its opening pages in which his formidable insight is evident.

The article begins with the philosopher asking: how would a traveller who had visited many lands reply if asked what characteristic was common among the variety of inhabitants that he had seen? Nietzsche proposes that our visitor should answer that people are indolent followers of convention. The German theorist's claim was that our modern age's apparent espousal of individualism concealed a relentless drive towards conformity powered by sloth: "for it is on account of their laziness that men seem like factory products." For Nietzsche the essence of idleness was the unwillingness to follow one's calling.

The significance of listening to one's conscience becomes evident in Nietzsche's appraisal of the pedagogical debate at the end of the 19th century. The philosopher notes that the discussion is oriented by two distinct positions: on one hand there are those who contend that the educator should discern the talent of the student and encourage them to pursue, develop and master their particular gift, while on the other hand some argue that the teacher should promote a well-proportioned combination of multiple faculties in the pupil. Nietzsche pulls together the two positions by reasoning that both should be fortified: "a man should have a center and on the other he should also have a periphery," that is, numerous capacities should be cultivated but brought into balance by an overarching inclination.

How can we discover our own animating principle that will bring the diversity of our talents into equilibrium? Nietzsche mentions that his own self-discovery began with the search for an educator who could help him detect his calling: "a true philosopher whom one could follow without any misgiving because one would have more faith in him than one had in oneself." Nietzsche's sentiment, and it is the perception of one of the most innovative thinkers of the modern era, is revealing: the student does need to have trust in their teacher before they can develop the capacities by which they will eventually become themselves. Imitation is the first step towards originality because the journey to one's vocation begins with the guidance of an exemplary mentor.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

Image: SPDP/Flickr