Teachers as Witnesses

“Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or if he listens to teachers, he does so because they are witnesses.” John Paul II and Benedict XVI have quoted these remarkable words of Paul VI. As Paul’s successors, they know wisdom when they see it. The Church is, of course, no stranger to education. The Catholic intellectual tradition is rich with insights into the nature of learning, but we should expect no less of the very institution that gave us the university.

I am a college professor and I would like to reflect upon the powerful words of Paul VI from that perspective. It is hard to think of contemporary college professors as “witnesses,” especially when so many of them are reticent to “profess” anything (so why do they merit the term “professor?). One plague of the modern university is the bizarre notion that the teacher ought not to impose his beliefs upon his students. No, indeed! The professor ought rather to be a sophisticated master chef preparing the sumptuous banquet of neutral information.

With prejudice towards no idea, a kind disposition towards all, and grave objectivity, the professor merely comments upon the relative strengths and weaknesses of each factual morsel comprising the feast of knowledge. Under this model, the uninitiated student, whose tastes are unformed, is left to his appetites – he gravitates towards what he personally finds interesting and meaningful. College thus becomes a type of four-year buffet where the student, safeguarded by the scrupulous “objectivity” of his instructors, makes knowledge and meaning for himself, without fear of interference from those serving him the banquet.

Such an educational model rejects outright the notion of teacher as witness. Yet in an odd way Paul VI does have advocates in university circles. The intellectually honest among the professoriate know that the notion of the “purely objective” teacher is nonsense. Those who probe into the nature of education quickly conclude that it is simply impossible to “teach from nowhere,” as if the positions and perspectives of the teacher could simply be suspended in a weightless vacuum of objectivity. Further, this notion of pure objectivity in pedagogy treats neither the teacher nor the student with anything resembling the seriousness befitting human persons.

Among the candid advocates for the notion of teacher as witness we find one of modern America’s most influential philosophers, the late Richard Rorty. Rorty is often classified as a postmodernist, but in a strange way, he sounded his own hearty amen to the words of Paul VI. Rorty understood that the teacher must passionately commit himself to what he believes to be true and must do all in his power to form his students according to these truths. Rorty’s witness as teacher lies in his own particular brand of liberal democracy, and he saw the teacher as pivotal in preparing young people for full citizenship in a democratic society.

He lamented the fact that some students are raised by what he calls “racist or fundamentalist” parents (the yoking of these two categories is telling, but must be a subject for another day). Taking Socrates as an example, Rorty insisted that the teacher must inculcate truth and rescue students from error, which for him means actively forming students only in ways beneficial to a democratic polity. And he confesses what he and his colleagues must then profess: “we [professors] are going to go right on trying to discredit you [parents] in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.”

Professor Rorty understood the notion of “teacher as witness” quite clearly. In principle, his passion was admirable (though in application misguided). He hardly considered himself, as teacher, an objective purveyor of ideas. Rorty’s successors are eager, indeed quite eager, to play the role of witnessing teachers. Yet, tragically, such teachers seem only to allow witnessing as authentic when it forms people to fit into their version of “the earthly city.”

If Rorty’s passion is admirable, it is because education by its very nature presupposes eternity. The university is only coherent insofar as each distinct discipline is understood to be a lens through which the human person can perceive truth and reality. All those disciplines, pursued with the curiosity and passion for truth proper to full persons, lead to ultimate questions about the nature of humanity, creation, and God Himself. It is an unwelcome truth for some scholars, but facts have never interpreted themselves. If the information discovered through a particular discipline “means” something, someone must witness to its significance in the cosmic scheme. And these witnesses who stand before the mystery of existence and speak it we call teachers.

Perhaps this is why Augustine so beautifully notes that all who teach are mere shadows of the one great teacher and witness, our Lord himself. In De Magistro, Augustine insists: “We listen to Truth which presides over our minds within us, though of course we may be bidden to listen by someone using words. Our real Teacher is. . .Christ. . .the unchangeable power and eternal wisdom of God.” Paul VI stood in that tradition and reminded us that the teacher is simply “someone using words” who witnesses to the Word Himself, who is finally The Teacher. And such teachers must always be compelling.

Aaron Urbanczyk is a scholar, writer, and teacher who lives and works in Nashville, TN.