What Do Students Owe Their Teachers?

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

As the modern university system becomes more focused on a contractual model of education, an increasing attention ends up being paid to the various obligations and rights that the different members of the contractual relationship have to one another. This focus seems to have its philosophical basis on the notion that higher education is a social institution. Like any social intuition, higher education not only has common goals and values, but it also establishes distinct role morality for all of its members. The social institution places individuals into discrete positions and establishes the proper standard of conduct for individuals within those roles. One important aspect of social institutions is that the roles and obligations generated by those roles are primarily in relationship to the larger collective values and goals. Thus, the responsibilities of a student role end up emphasizing what students owe higher education itself.  For example, a student may have the obligation to be academically honest. This obligation tends to focus on how dishonesty undermines the goals of higher education, like creating an informed citizenry; if large numbers of students are regularly dishonest, the end result is a citizenry that is no more informed than if those students had not attended a higher education institution.

Understanding the contractualization of higher education as only establishing obligations between the individual roles and the goals and values of the social institution misses a key component of contractual relationships. Contractual relationships do not just establish obligations between the roles and the social institution; they also establish the obligations that the individual roles have to each other. Instructors in the higher education social institution often think through what they owe the students. What is less often considered is the question of what students owe their teachers.

In his 1988 book, Another Sort of Learning, James Schall directly addresses this question. Schall focuses his third chapter on the title question “What a Student Owes His Teacher.” Before explaining what students owe teachers, Schall gives a compelling vision of the social benefits and core value of education. He argues that education is about finding ‘inner truth.’ By this he means that students will come to a better and more accurate worldview that is based in reality. When the student has done learning, they will grasp the working of the world they live in better than they did before starting the educational process. Schall states: “The student ought to become independent of the teacher to the point of even forgetting his name, but not the truth he learned.”

To reach this goal, Schall lays out a list of four obligations that the student owes his or her teachers. At first glance this list may seem overly narrow and modest, but this is intentional. Schall is attempting to focus on the interrelational obligations of the student to the teacher, not the student’s obligations to the social institution or the student’s obligations to himself or herself. He argues that the student owes: (1) In the first week of classes, at least, the student owes the teacher a moderately good will towards the teacher. This is a confidence to admit to oneself that the teacher probably has thought through the subject and knows where the instruction will lead. (2) An amount of faith that the student can learn something that seems unlearnable in the beginning. This is a trust the student must have in himself or herself. (3) “The virtue of docility,” which is the fact that they must allow themselves to be taught. He further articulates this as open-mindedness to the subject and instruction. (4) A willingness to engage in the effort of study. This is the ability and desire to ignore distractions and other desires to try to learn.

While some may look at this list of obligations and consider it to be too small to capture all of the things a student owes a teacher, my reaction is that this list may actually include too many obligations. When we consider the nature of obligations, we must be able to find a harm that might occur if the obligation is not fulfilled. In the case of an obligation to a person, there must be a potential that the person to whom we have an obligation will be worse off if the obligation is not fulfilled. When we consider what students owe their teachers, as articulated by Schall, it is not clear how the instructor is being harmed when any of the obligations are not fulfilled. Consider two different students who might enter the classroom. The first student has good will toward the teacher; this student fully embraces the fact that the teacher has a more thorough understanding of the subject and knows where the course will lead. The second student has absolutely no good will toward the teacher; this student does not believe that the teacher better understands the subject matter or course trajectory. This second student cares nothing about the subject matter, but has the desire to meet the credit requirement. This student does not want to learn, but wants the outward benefits of passing the course (for example, they want the course credits on their transcript and want positive benefits to their grade point average). There is good reason to believe that the second student has harmed the goals of ‘inner learning’ and being party to an informed citizenry; that student has not learned anything and will not make more informed decisions that they would have without having taken the course. But this does not mean that the second student has harmed the teacher. We can further imagine that the second student has learned how to appear to be a student of good will. Without having learned this, the student might not pass the course or might negatively affect his or her grade point average. In short, the student owes it to himself or herself to appear to be a student of good will. The first student, on the other hand, we might imagine, has not developed the social skills to seem to have good will. When he or she attempts to make statements expressing good will, they come out awkwardly and are easily misunderstood as being of bad intention. Which of these students poses more potential harm to their teacher? It is the first student that is most likely to disrupt the flow of the teaching, to agitate the teacher, to undermine the confidence of the teacher, and to sow discord within the fellow students about the competence of the teacher.

It does not seem that students actually owe their teachers the inner mental state of good will. Instead, the student owes the teacher the appearance of good will. I believe that the same conclusions can be reached with the other three points that Schall argues students owe their teachers. The student owes the teacher the appearance of good will, the appearance of being open-minded, the appearance of trust in himself or herself, and the appearance of being willing to ignore other distractions. This does not mean that the four qualities that Schall highlights are not valuable for the student; they are. These seem to be qualities that the student owes himself or herself, but not the teacher. This is because it is the student who is harmed when they do not have these internal mental qualities; the teacher is only harmed when the student does not have the outward appearance of these qualities.

One response to “What Do Students Owe Their Teachers?

  1. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits « The New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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