Do you ever get the feeling that God is trying to tell you something?
Every year I have the opportunity to teach the 11th grade a crash course on philosophy before we read Pascal’s pensées. We read bits of Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Keirkegaard, and C.S. Lewis, to name a few, in addition to several Bible verses (including the entire book of Ecclesiastes). While I can’t tell from year to year what will ultimately stick with each individual student, I want to tell you one thing that has stuck with me believing that what God is teaching me is applicable and helpful for the betterment of others’ lives.
Pascal’s pensées, which are little thoughts, have been edited, outlined, and analyzed by Peter Kreeft in Christianity for Modern Pagans. I assign the 11th graders a few to read each night and then respond to one that is particularly interesting, confusing, or inspiring to them in some way. When we meet up for class the next day, we have a discussion on what we learn, ask each other questions, and sometimes just sit in silence when we’re stumped or contemplating. Here’s one of my favorites:
701: When we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question.
Kreeft, the editor, quotes from Keirkegaard in his commentary on this passage:
“But all true effort to help begins with self-humiliation: the helper must first humble himself under him he would help, and therewith must understand that to help does not mean to be a sovereign but to be a servant, that to help does not mean to be ambitious but to be patient, that to help means to endure for the time being the imputation that one is in the wrong and does not understand what the other understands.”
In short, Pascal (and Keirkegaard and Kreeft) is here reminding us that teachers and parents have to have humility. As a teacher, this means that I must approach my classes as an opportunity to practice the classical Christian virtue of hospitality. Classical Christian hospitality involves an understanding of the proper relationship between a guest and a host. In the ancient world, guests would enter into a place and be welcomed by a host. This host would provide them shelter and food before asking any questions of them. Only after the bond of peace and communion was established between the two would any personal information be revealed. And while the host provides the venue and provisions, the host himself could become a guest while listening to his guest. In other words, guest-host relationships should be interchangeable in any given circumstance—the host should be able to become the guest of his guest, and the guest should be able to become the host of his host.
In classroom terms, the teacher should be able to learn from his students, and students should be able to teach their teachers. Granted, this looks different in each classroom and grade level, and ultimately the teacher is the one in charge who deserves respect and compliant obedience, but the idea behind it remains.
I am challenging myself and my fellow teachers to continue to welcome opportunities to learn from our students. I am challenging our students to feel confident teaching their teachers and fellow classmates, albeit respectfully with humility and compassion, never with pride or a sense of superiority (practice your virtues of temperance, prudence, and courage!). And I am challenging parents to learn from your children. One of the highlights of teaching the Pensées last year was hearing from a mom who started to read them so she could discuss them with her daughter instead of just hearing about them. The beauty behind the guest-host relationship is that instead of one person providing all of the resources so a bunch of people can walk away stuffed, everyone leaves satisfied and happy and has a hunger, a desire, to return the next day.