Short essay: Love, Teaching and the Renewal of the Common World

Dips O’Donnell, the best reading accountant on the planet, has an eye for good writing. He is such a voracious reader he even reads his lad’s school newsletter which, in the case of St Kevins, has some classics. This Michael McGirr’s piece features a passage from Raimond Gaita. On Michael McGirr: Michael has a great eye for observation and he brings the wisdom of scholarship and experience to his words. He is a very interesting man. So it is little surprise that Michael McGirr would be attracted to the thoughts of Raimond Gaita, philosopher, whose book Romulus My Father is just wonderful. Here Michael brings some of Raimond’s thoughts to us on teaching. That is, active teaching, the philosophical considerations which underpin teaching, and the responsibilty we ignore if we don’t teach.


Love, Teaching and the Renewal of a Common World

At this year’s staff reflection day on August 31, one of Australia’s leading philosophers, Professor Raimond Gaita, gave a wonderful talk on the topic of ‘love, teaching and the renewal of a common world.’ Prof Gaita is Professorial Fellow in the Melbourne Law School and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne and Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at King’s College London. Prof Gaita is possibly best known as the author of Romulus, My Father. Below is just a taste of what he had to say to our staff:

R.F. Holland, a fine English philosopher, who, to my good fortune, supervised my PhD, wrote in an essay published in his collection Against Empiricism, that teachers should “ concentrate on making available to those whom we teach the very best and most beautiful things we know, and as far as possible, only those things”.

In 1972 Peter Steele, poet, priest and teacher, who died just over two months ago, said to me, “I believe in teaching”. He was moved to say this against the spreading notion that teachers merely put into the heads of students what, in principle, students could have got from elsewhere – that they are merely facilitators of learning, doing for their students what autodidacts do for themselves. This conception of teaching is now ubiquitous, which is why we hear so much about Learning (capital intended) but so little about teaching. I once heard a bright young man say at the end of his schooling, “Teachers are losers”. He would not have disparaged Learning: he needed it to qualify for a place in a prestigious law or medical school.

In much of my work I have tried to reveal why it is, and why it matters, that morality is sui generis, that is to say, not fully explicable by connections it has to ends that could be described independently of it. In Romulus My Father I expressed that by saying that I learned from my father that morality is not the servant of our desires and interests: it is their judge. I would say the same about teaching. Although it serves ends that can be described independently of it – all the ends indeed that can fall under the head of Learning when it is achieved – its deepest value transcends the efficient service of those ends. Teacher and pupil may, in their different ways but necessarily together, be engaged in the exploration and progressive discovery of a value that cannot be specified independently of their engagement and its necessary mutuality.

I hope it is clear how I would respond to those who say that for the sake of young people who face a very uncertain future we must insist on the instrumental value of education to ensure our institutions deliver to them a ‘product’ that will enable them to be as ‘flexible’ as they need to be to market their skills to maximum effect. I would quote a passage by Hannah Arendt in an essay, ‘The Crisis in Education’, which she wrote in the 1950’s and included in her book, Between Past and Future. I first read it in 1972 quoted by Peter Steele in his essay ‘A Teaching Authority’.

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, not to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something foreseen by no one, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

Most of the young people I know – my students, my children and their friends – believe that their generation and their children’s generation are likely to be overwhelmed by conflicts arising from the shameful gap between the rich and the poor nations, compounded by ecological crises. I fear they are right. Their generation and the generation after them will not be protected to the degree that mine has been from the terrors suffered by most of the peoples of the earth because of poverty, natural disasters and the evils inflicted upon them by other human beings. More and more, I fear, knowledge of affliction and cruelty will test their understanding of what it means to share a common humanity with all the peoples of the earth, and to a degree almost too awful to imagine, their faith that the world is a good world despite the suffering and the evil in it.

What can sustain that faith? There are few questions more urgently in need of sober realism in their formulation and in what we offer as answers. For teachers, Holland’s answer (which was also Plato’s) is the best I know. We should bring students ‘into contact with’ things of goodness, beauty and purity. Love is the natural and right name to give such attention. Its existence in one person may awaken it another. A teacher can do nothing finer for her students.
– ¬Prof Raimond Gaita


Mr Michael McGirr
Head of Faith & Mission

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