The teacher-student-monument in Rostock, Germany.
I can still remember the thrill of teaching my first college class over 30 years ago. I walked into the room wondering “What am I going to talk about for an hour, three times a week, for sixteen weeks?” As I soon found out, I could talk that long easily!
For the most part, I enjoyed teaching, but I’m glad to have put it behind me. For one thing, I can now concentrate on my scholarly thinking and writing, and for another, I was burned out of teaching toward the end of my career.
There were many contributing factors to my teacher burnout. First, many of the students in my introductory college courses didn’t want to be there—most of them took my philosophy classes to fulfill a requirement. So it was like teaching someone to play the piano or program a computer who doesn’t want to learn how, not an ideal situation. Looking back I wish that I could have gone into a class and said: “If you want to study and learn then we can do it together but if you don’t please leave.” No, I never said this but I admit I wanted to. Also, you meet a few nasty students when teaching.
Another factor is the inherent conflict surrounding grading. Most students care primarily about grades whereas I care about their learning. This led to occasional, dispiriting battles over grades. Moreover, the cumulative effect of teaching as many as 8 classes in a single semester slowly took its toll. This resulted from the fact that, in addition to a full load at my primary institution, I usually taught community college classes at night. In all, I estimate that I taught about 250 classes in my career covering 25 different subjects to a total of about 9,000 students.
A final factor had to do with the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophy is mostly about controversial topics like ethics, religion, and politics. Thus teaching it well forces such topics to be broached. As Spinoza put it: “I can’t teach philosophy without being a disturber of the peace.” That’s exactly right but the problem is that most students don’t want their peace disturbed. Add to this the current instability and hyper-partisan nature of American culture and the classroom is fertile ground for tension. I just tired of the conflict.
As for the students who wanted to learn, I enjoyed teaching and learning with them, and I remember many of them fondly. I say with all honesty that I did everything I could to contribute to their educations and would spend hours talking with them if that helped. Real education is something I believe in and I’d still teach today if I had interested students.
But now I feel about leaving teaching the way Thoreau did about leaving the woods.
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”