When I was fresh out of graduate school I didn’t believe in anything. I did my job, but I did have a certain difficulty teaching -- for what could I possibly have to say to my students, and what could it possibly matter? Here I was, teaching Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the other greats, and I would sometimes want to weep for the beauty of the appearance of truth. But I would hold all that in, telling myself that it was an illusion.
The cure was to return to the faith I had abandoned years previously. People often suppose that faith and reason are opposites. What I found was just the opposite: Until I rediscovered faith, I couldn’t trust reasoning either. Recovery of the belief that the mind is ordained for knowing truth made it possible to believe that teaching is a meaningful activity after all.
You would think that would end my trouble with teaching, and it did for a while, but then it produced a new problem. The new problem would have been impossible for me in the old days when I hadn’t cared about my students, but now I had begun to love them. And so now, if they were indifferent to learning -- if they were in college just to have a good time, to please their parents, or to get their tickets punched -- it was crushing to me. So few of them did show that spark of wanting to know what is true that for a few years I burned out on teaching.
This cure this time was charity. I had burned out by learning to love a little; I recovered by learning to love a little more. Everyone is called to care for what is true, but not every student is called to the intellectual life, and I learned to make the distinction. I tried to do what I could for my students no matter their situations, and took to heart St. Paul’s advice “admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” It turned out that more of them wanted to learn something than I had thought.
The last difficulty developed as a consequence of the deepening realization that modern universities no longer believe in their vocation. If the universities are in a death spiral, as it increasingly seems that they are, then what could I do?
The cure for this final trouble was hope. I had been thinking of the decline of the universities as though my job were to make everything right. No, the day’s worries are sufficient for the day; my job is to do what I can in my place. Don’t I still have a classroom? Don’t I still have students? Despite everything, don’t some of them still want to learn? If at times, teaching is like throwing a stone into a still pool so that it strikes the surface and vanishes, what of that? I don’t have to see the results in this life. Sometimes I do, and that is a blessing. But He sees, and that is enough.
“So faith, hope, love abide, these three”; and curiously, they are pedagogical necessities.