Happiness and Kindness: Why I Am a Teacher

I have just been reading Laurie Essig’s new post, “Reproducing Anxiety,” and have come away thinking hard.  (When have I ever read one of Laurie Essig’s blogs and not come away thinking hard?)

She raises the issue of training and education and the implications for happiness and kindness. As it happens, quite independently I have been thinking about these sorts of things a lot myself in the last few days. My university has now decided that if full professors are to get a pay rise, they must go through what is essentially a tenure review. Although there are no outside letters, we must, among other things, prepare statements on our teaching, our research, and our service. I have never had to do anything like this before and I confess I have found it both revealing and a not-very-comfortable experience. It calls for a kind of self-examination that a rather anal Englishman like myself (are not all Englishmen rather anal?) finds very alien. Real men don’t talk about their achievements, even to themselves.

The teaching statement has been the hardest—after all, research and service are basically matters of facts. But teaching calls for some kind of statement of philosophy, if I might use such a word, and even apart from being English we professional philosophers are not very good at that sort of thing. But I have done a first draft, and the reason why I talk of it here, and reproduce it below, is because Laurie was talking about education/training and happiness and kindness, and, somewhat to my surprise, I found that happiness and kindness are absolutely central to my aims as a teacher.  Not happiness in the sense of going out and getting sloshed, although I would be a hypocrite if I said that that never comes into it, but happiness in the sense of John Stuart Mill—better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And as you will see for me, following Plato, happiness and morality are one.

So here you go.  I have a nasty feeling that I come across as a totally sanctimonious pill, but I am not really. It is just that doing this sort of thing makes one sound that way.  What I will say is that entering into the conversation that Laurie and others are having is more important than feeling embarrassed at this kind of self-revelation.


I come from a family of educators. My mother was a school teacher. My father was a school bursar. Teaching is not just my occupation but my passion. I am completing my forty-sixth year as a university professor, and I can truly say that last semester was one of the most exciting three months of teaching I have ever had. I blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and here are some of the pieces I wrote, inspired by the courses I taught:

I am a fortunate person: My work is my hobby. I think that being a teacher is the highest calling in life. One is trying to convey knowledge—I draw no hard distinction between being a teacher and being a researcher—but, more importantly than this, one is trying to infuse young people with a sense of joy of learning. Not just for its own sake, but for the lifelong results. Overall, the aim is to show and convince the student of the true worth of being a human being. And this is a moral quest. Not in some soft-sided fashion, but in a real, meaningful way.

The most important work that I have ever read is Plato’s Republic. I am by profession and training a philosopher and—believing that the unexamined life is not worth living —it is to that subject that I return again and again. Last semester, team-teaching with my colleague John Kelsay in the Department of Religion, Plato’s Republic was the center to my contribution to our course. Over fifty years ago, the great Greek thinker convinced me that true happiness is a function of the harmony of all aspects of the human being, the human soul. Only the happy person is the good person; only the good person is the happy person. If I can pass on something of this to my students, then I feel I have succeeded.

My particular area of philosophical specialisation is the philosophy of science, especially the philosophy of biology. Very much influenced by the thinking of Thomas Kuhn, in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I have always thought that philosophy of science depends essentially on the history of science. For that reason, I have long tried to bring history to my philosophy and philosophy to my history. Hence, I regularly team-teach courses with people outside my department including members of the history department. A particularly satisfying course was co-taught with Frederick (“Fritz”) Davies, where we explored in some detail and depth the claims of the social constructivists, particularly their arguments supposedly showing that scientific knowledge is as much an artifact of culture as anything produced in the humanities.  What made the course exciting and showed to the students the full relevance of what we were studying is that one of our case studies centered on a close relative of a member of the FSU Biology Department. We were able to follow in some detail the full implications of the kinds of charges that are made by some historians, showing that claims made in the name of scholarship have the ability to wound and hurt.  Scholarship has responsibilities, not to avoid saying harsh things but to see that one is justified in what it is that one says.

My commitment to interdisciplinarity has extended not just a history but also to religion. I have co-taught courses with John Kelsay and with the more junior scholar Matthew Day. Particularly exciting has been the course that Matthew Day and I created on the subject of science and film. It is obviously something with appeal to students.  This semester, only the third semester in which it is being offered, it is fully booked with some 70 students. I have also extended my reach out to the Department of Biology. Several times I have co-taught graduate courses with the now-dean Joseph Travis, and two years ago during the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, I was one of the faculty involved in putting on a course on the Origin of Species for the Department of Biology.

My teaching does not end with the classroom. I look upon the conferences that I am able to mount, thanks to the Werkmeister gift to the Philosophy Department, as extensions of the educational experience. This semester, I am co-directing a conference on evolutionary medicine with the Department of Biology and the College of Medicine. I am also involved with members of the College of Education, and this has led to the co-sponsoring of talks as well as co-supervising of graduate students.  I am also co-directing (with John Kelsay) a workshop for the Library, fitting in with their seminar series. We will be putting on a seminar on the nature of sin, involving people from Criminology, as well as History, Religion, and Philosophy.

The course which has given me most satisfaction in the past decade has been the honors course that I give on philosophy and film. When I started doing this, some ten years ago, there were very few universities offering such courses. Now, they are practically becoming the norm. Indeed, I have been approached by a leading commercial publisher asking me to produce a textbook on the subject. The films that I show range from some of the expected classics, like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, to some of the most important films in the history of cinema, for instance Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, and on to more-unexpected choices like the cowboy movie Shane.

What motivates this course? On the one hand, I have tried to introduce students to important cultural aspects of the twentieth century. Film, which is a very American phenomenon in many ways, has functioned both as popular entertainment and as a very influential medium for conveying ideas. We need to see how these rival aims, not always easy companions, work together and apart.  On the other hand, I use the films as a way to introduce significant philosophical issues. This is very obvious when one is dealing with a film like John Ford’s The Searchers. Here one is grappling very directly with racial relationships. A film like Shane demands a more subtle analysis, as one tries to show the students how an individual has to make moral choices, drawing upon their own experiences and personal sense of decency and honor. This opens the way directly for discussion of existential themes, particularly as developed by the French thinker Jean-Paul Sartre.

There is also a third purpose to this course. I make every student write a 500 word essay on every film. I mark all of these myself, expecting the students to hand in the essay the week after the film, and guaranteeing a marked script the week after. This way, students learn quickly how to write a short essay on a theme, cutting out the unnecessary verbiage and getting straight to the topic. I like to think that no course that I give would-be more easily justifiable to members of our legislature. At the end of my course, all of my students know how to write an informative précis or memorandum. Would that I had learnt this skill at their age.

Let me say that there’s nothing more important or enjoyable for me then the sense that I am passing on the torch. I spend a great deal of time with my students, particularly with the graduate students in the program I have founded in history and philosophy of science. I take them to conferences, I encourage presentations, and we have a very vigorous, weekly, brown-bag lunch meeting. I always feel that the real mark of success and achievement is when they want to move beyond me, probably criticizing my ideas. Most particularly, I feel very gratified when I see them moving out into jobs of their own. I have had about five students complete dissertations in this last decade, and all of them have jobs.  I have three working with me now, and two are already in jobs.  (As Director of the History and Philosophy of Science Program, I am ultimately responsible for about ten students there.  Most are taking the prepare-a-paper-for-publication route rather than the thesis route.)

I always tell my doctoral students that I welcome the opportunity to come and speak at the institutions where they are first hired. My agency has been told to waive my customary speaker’s fee. This way I can support them but also indirectly give myself a great deal of pleasure in seeing that they have passed beyond what I have to offer. My invariable saying is: “Please don’t thank me. My thanks will come when you do for your students what I have tried to do for mine.”  This is already happening.

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