During my summer vacation I reread The Dissenting Academy, edited by Theodore Roszak. This book contains the famous essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," by Noam Chomsky, first published in this book. It got me thinking about teaching and learning. At the beginning of another academic year there is much that students hope to learn from me.
I chose the academic life to participate in a community of scholars. I would have joined the business world had I been interested in money and prestige. I want to introduce my students to the life of the mind, and I want to help them to become good citizens.
Roszak writes: "To be an intellectually vital man of letters during the Enlightenment ... implied citizenship. It implied exercising what Peter Gay called ‘the sovereign rights of criticism,’ which in turn implied calling into question all authority, privilege, and tradition." (p. 28)
The students have to start where they are. They bring with them experiences and backgrounds that in many cases are very different from my own. I try to be open to and to learn from their experiences.
I explain to them that there is always more to learn about teaching. I promise not to exploit them or to drag them into departmental feuds. They can only learn from collegial battles that universities and colleges can be very unpleasant places.
The hardest part of the teaching (for me) begins with tolerating their biases and assumptions. I try to show them how to formulate better questions before they reach for answers. I try to help them progress intellectually by introducing them to the problem of social context.
To quote Chomsky: "If it is the responsibility of the intellectual to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective." (p. 285)
I also tell students what I think, and try to show them how I arrived at what I think. I want them to feel free to speak openly and to disagree with one another. I give them individual work and group work so they learn the value of listening to and working with others.
From Robert Engler: "The university offers the ideal and the potential mechanism for a community of intelligence and conscience which might yet develop dialogue in the larger community. If the teachers and the students ... do not recognize the imperative, then where else can this society turn?" (p. 207)
Silence and fear diminish us as human beings and as scholars. If we want to inspire our students, this year and beyond, we need to speak openly. We must use our academic freedom in the classroom.