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How to Help People Change, Part II: The Instruction for Change

“When he is fully trained, the disciple will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

In my previous post I looked at the structure of change, and I argued that Augustine’s view of how people change is well suited to the nature of the human soul. Humans are not only thinking beings, nor is ignorance our only problem. Humans are creatures of desire, and our thoughts gravitate toward the things we love. Therefore, any change involves not only thinking on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, but also finding rest in (i.e. loving) our purpose as beings made by and for a Triune, Divine Creator.

Still, though one’s direction in life is largely determined by what one loves, there must be some knowledge at which desires aim. Teachers who wish to move students toward the Transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty, must therefore instruct. But what is the character of instruction that leads to the desired change?

One of the claims I made in the previous essay was that truth is personal. Abstract information cannot comprise truth, since it falls short of personality. One of the ways the teacher elucidates the personality of truth is to teach out of his or her own person (as opposed to teaching impersonally, as though one could become a purely objective, universal mouthpiece of truth). This does not typically mean offering one’s own opinion, though on occasion that can be helpful. Teaching from one’s own personality means allowing the students to experience the discovery of truth vicariously through the teacher’s own discovery, in order that the student might imitate the teacher in posture (seeking in humility), purpose (for the love of truth), and presentation (to give a gift unto another).

Naturally, discovery comes from having questions that are answered, or get closer to an answer. Teachers who tell answers aren’t embodying discovery so much as reporting findings: “Can anyone tell me the Greek word for glory? Anyone? Anyone? Kleos.” Few things are less compelling than classroom monologues. How does a teacher avoid reporting the truth rather than facilitating its discovery?

Such embodiment naturally begins in planning a lesson, where a teacher thinks about a subject matter in terms of what it ought to do for and to the students so that the students will be able to do for and to another (whether the teacher, or the classmates, or some other beneficiary).

If I am planning a lesson on Aristotle’s five canons of rhetoric, what is my instruction supposed to give the students that they will be giving to me, or to their classmates? Progressive instruction will often share in this same approach, but value a different outcome than the classical teacher. Progressive instruction will say, “I will give the students the terms, definitions, and examples of invention, arrangement, style, and delivery so that the student can give them back to me on the next multiple choice test.”

But data transfer is not our aim. Rather, classical instruction investigates the nature and teleology of the subject matter, not just its appearance—why did Aristotle have five canons? Why not six, or four, or only two? How does each canon prepare a speaker in relation to his subject and the audience? Why would the speaker need all of these aids prior to speaking? What makes one canon different from the others? Are they altogether different? Why do we need “canons” in the first place? And so on. The more deeply the teacher thinks on these things, the more fodder for discovery, for questions that draw interest and imagination, for a thirst to know something for oneself, rather than be told what one should know for a test.

Having plumbed some of the nature of a topic, the teacher must then require the students to do for and to some other person or persons. Sometimes the classroom setting affords spontaneous scenarios flowering from student questions or immediate circumstances, but more often than not a teacher will need to craft scenarios into which the students will be placed in order to participate in the truth, goodness, or beauty being discovered so as to give of it to others.

Indeed, discovery is rarely found in the lecture of a class, but rather comes in the practice and participation of the student. Johnny won’t change from a timid speaker to a bold one by listening to Mr. Smith’s pep talks alone. Rather, Johnny is going to have to try his lungs, move his body, risk looking foolish, and learn to laugh at mistakes and expend specified effort to improve. No less true for the student of Milton’s poetry or Euclid’s geometry is the necessity of participation in the discovery of the truth, goodness, or beauty of what is there for the having. Perhaps the student who cannot distinguish an acute angle from an obtuse one will need to draw pictures, pace out lines, make up a song, or similarly direct all of the aspects of his person toward the object of desire.

Many times the truth one is learning only comes when trying to teach it to another.

All of which brings us to an important implication of the teacher’s preparation and the student’s participation, which is the particularity of instruction.

The transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty are eternal and immutable by their very nature, even as personal attributes of the Triune God. Yet all of God’s creatures are individuals, and though each class of creature retains general characteristics, the individuals of each class are a singularity. The number two shares in the general characteristics of all numbers, yet is itself unique among them all.

A teacher has a class of human beings, all of which share in the general qualities of humanity, but each of which is unique. Instruction is therefore open-ended insofar as all plans are subject to the individuality of each soul in the room. Moreover, each class as a unit among all other classes will have its peculiarities that will differ from last year’s class and next year’s class.

In order to move toward growth and change the teacher has to adjust to the variety he or she encounters. Indeed, while it is a truism that the teacher is still learning the truth, goodness, and beauty of what he or she is teaching, there is more to learn than Dante, Calculus, or Shakespeare. There is also the territory of each human soul that being taught, which is the teacher’s undiscovered country, his final frontier, her treasury of delights.

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