Light Kindled by a Leaping Spark: Education Beyond Information
Aug 15, 2023
Marco Stango, Ph.D.
It is hard sometimes to shake off the feeling, at age thirty-seven, of being completely outdated, a sort of youngish museum piece from the past. For one thing, I am a teacher, not a biomedical engineer, a computer scientist, or a TikTok celebrity. As if this were not enough, I teach philosophy at a Catholic theological school. I am not trying to confess a personal weakness. What I am trying to say is that every man or woman in my situation should feel the same way. I am of course being cheeky here, but the problem remains, and it should give us pause. We are outdated or, as we like to say when we are having a good day, ‘countercultural.’ And so are our students. And yet, I wonder, why wouldn’t I exchange the work I do with my students and colleagues with anything else? Why does this work feel so important, exciting, and rewarding? Why do I rejoice so much in the intellectual, spiritual, and human growth of my students and my own, when it happens?
I often wonder about whether it still makes sense today to go to school instead of learning from the endless online resources to which most of us have access. Why take a course on the history of philosophy – at St. Bernard’s, ça va sans dire – when one can watch infinite hours of lectures on the same subject on YouTube, for instance? The answer to this allegedly difficult question comes from an elementary experience as a teacher in the classroom. Any teacher knows that conveying information is neither the only aspect of his work, nor even the most fundamental one. I became aware of this fact when I realized, during a course on Plato, that I had to sacrifice some of the content that I had prepared in order to attend to the urgent and unexpected needs emerging from my students.
It is sometimes necessary to sacrifice information for the sake of one’s relationship with students – for the sake of truth! Truth, therefore, is not just information, but the dwelling place in which we rediscover what our common humanity is made for. It is what gathers us together into an original unity and which sends us off into an unknown future, patiently waiting so that each one of us might bring about the fruit of his or her own talent. In other words, if truth had levels, "getting the facts right," "being informed," and "knowing one’s stuff" would only be the first level of truth. It is precisely as Plato says in his Letter VII: truth is born in our soul all of a sudden after a long application with other people, with friends, “as light that is kindled by a leaping spark.”
But it would be a mistake to think of human relations as merely instrumental to the apprehension of truth. More deeply, they are an essential dimension of it. I personally love all the resources that YouTube and other platforms provide, but I also know that when it comes to the truth, the Internet can provide “data” at best, and only the ghost of human relationships at worst. I cannot count the times I have rediscovered the truth of something that I had been teaching for years with conviction by simply hearing it pronounced anew by one of my students, with whom I am tied by a common history. Man, created in the image and likeness of God, truly has the power to make the truth manifest for what it is – ever ancient, ever new, as St. Augustine says of the beauty of God.
A course sometimes works and sometimes it does not. There is something mysterious about this because it does not fully depend on how well I prepare for it or how deeply I know the subject matter. It has happened that courses on topics on which I am an expert (whatever that means) have left some students completely untouched by what I had said. In other cases, extemporaneous comments on subject matters I am less well-versed in have literally put in motion the Socratic eros of the students. I have wondered about this fact a great deal and have come to the conclusion that the fecundity of a course is not simply a direct function of the quantity or quality of information to which the students have been exposed. The idea of communication understood as the transferring of information from a mind to another – the transferring of a message C from a mind A to a mind B, as de Saussure would have it – does not grasp what happens in learning and knowledge. In a sense, the information conveyed through words, propositions, handouts, readings, etc., is only a tool or, better, a sign, pointing beyond itself – as phenomenologists would say, pointing to the “things themselves.”
The class does not work when the students and I remain stuck on ‘this side’ of language. When it does work, however, students come to see, personally, what we have been talking about. Seeing of course is a metaphor, but it truly grasps what occurs in genuine education. Learning is being led to encounter layers of reality we had no idea existed. Once again, as a teacher I have experienced the robotic and somewhat clueless repetition from students who have all the information but none of the seeing and, conversely, the knowledge of those who struggle to convey in words what they have truly come to see.
In all my classes, I invite my students to learn with care the words used by the philosophers we study, but always with the awareness that learning these words is never an end in itself. I am inclined to think that this dynamic becomes even more difficult when it is not kindled by a genuine human relationship. It is the face of the other – with his urgent needs, his tiredness, his frustration, his wonder, his desire – that forces me to always find new words for the truth, for that which cannot be reduced to words, and to re-propose the words from the Catholic tradition which are ‘traditional’ simply because they succeed in the difficult task of directing our attention beyond themselves, to the things themselves. This is moving for a Catholic – that the Word of God is a man, not a message – a Man who speaks, but in parables; a God Who transcends all words Who nevertheless decides to speak in human words; a Man Who remains silent; a Man Who teaches but Who also asks not to be repeated, but to be followed.