My philosophy of teaching is, in essence, a type of letting go. It is a philosophy that attempts to reveal to my students the solid but sometimes ethereal bonds that we share with a larger community that goes back millennia. It is a combining of the study of what makes this country great and unique with the individual pursuit of the good life as far as we can perceive it. My philosophy of teaching is an admittedly subjective, but not untrue, interpretation of our American Project as simply a newer version of that ancient human project. It is an unmasking of that one final pursuit, that unanswered and possibly unanswerable question all of mankind has been driven by since our birth: How are we to live?
The Declaration of Independence hints at the philosophical pursuit of wisdom, to a degree, with the phrase “pursuit of Happiness”. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, explains that he was inspired, in part, by Locke, Cicero, and Aristotle in a letter written to Henry Lee. It is obvious that the American project has been enshrined from the beginning by the idea that simply living is not adequate. “Those magnificent words” as Martin Luther King Jr. describes the Declaration are meant to compel the educated and thoughtful participants in a republic to live life and use liberty to pursue a higher end. President Washington points out in his First Inaugural Address that there is an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness. A Good Life is a Happy Life and a Happy People lead to a Good Government. The pursuit of Happiness, then, requires the construction of the best government which can only happen when people can come together to explore the Summum Bonum. A free and educated people encased within a republic, armed with tools such as the First Amendment, is the only way the pursuit of Happiness can ever truly be honored. This is our project as educators. We are the torch bearers of the highest of pursuits, if we understand our task correctly. We should not be the preparers of the next generation of workers, but the next generation of self-actualized human beings in the Aristotelian/Jeffersonian sense. As such, at the beginning of each semester, I present myself simply as an advanced student to my seniors. Though I’ve been searching longer, my students and I share that fundamental similarity. Many of the debates, dialogs, games and activities conducted in my classes are prefaced by the notion that the most important questions usually remain unanswered. The quest for the best answers often produces, not answers, but more refined questions. Good questions, then, are just as good as sometimes misleading “final” answers. In this sense, we are all students in pursuit of the Good.
When we study the Declaration, for example, we cross reference several Founding documents to try to establish the definition of some of the seemingly common or modern words like “Happiness”, “Men”, and “Right”. Before we get into the ins and outs of the Constitution we have to identify the fundamental terms that the Constitution seems to have been built upon. We investigate its DNA, so to speak. We take a look at the complaints leveled at King George and Parliament and compare them to Article I sections 8 and 9 of the U.S. Constitution. Further, against the Machiavellian notion of unitary power (and we do read some Machiavelli), we make a poster entitled “The Constitution: a machine that will run of itself” that details separation of powers and checks and balances as it related to a self-governing people. In a visual manner, we explore why a slow acting and heavily populated “gear” (Legislative Branch) would be countered by a more quickly acting and unified “gear” (the Executive Branch). Bringing in our understanding of the Declaration, we try to outline why such an awkwardly constructed government was sought after. We routinely hold Lincoln-Douglas style debates. Students prepare an attack or defense of various topics or institutions. It is important for these young adults who are very near voting age to be able to sift opinions and substantiate those opinions with reason and facts. Topics debated in class range from how we should treat captured terrorists, funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, limiting or not limiting the freedom of speech of hate groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church, the complex issue of undocumented aliens, gay marriage, military funding and foreign policy to the problem of redistricting as it applies to minority representation in Congress. They learn and have fun making “Constitutional Convention” infomercials and “Election 2016 Demographic” analyses in video format. I am Virgil to their Dante. They show me what they want to learn and I try to guide them in their own learning.
I want my students to test their ideas not just on me, but the world they are about to enter. We use technology like Twitter (@Thrasymachus), YouTube, Aurasma, blogs, and Storify to get their well-reasoned opinions out into the sifting forces of the “real world”. I assign essays that are associated with contests hosted by organizations like the Bill of Rights Institute. I try to get them involved in a variety of activities such as volunteering for local campaigns, applying to become their precinct’s chair, inviting local political and government participants such as a law clerk from Roanoke, a former mayor of Haslet, Tx, and precinct chairs in Denton County.
At its core, my philosophy is a type of letting go. The search for the good life, the pursuit of Happiness, may be the best stand-in for the actual attainment of Happiness, which may or may not be possible in this life. Deciding that for my students, however, is not my job. My trust is to collaborate with them to help them best determine their own understanding of the good life; to help my kids sharpen their skills to pursue that end. Each can then enrich our City on a Hill in their own way. My job, ultimately, is to get them to no longer need me.