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On Making Students Friends

In the press and rush of planning, grading, lecturing, it becomes easy to think that the end of teaching is to plan, to grade, to lecture—and so to confuse the means of teaching with its ends: the getting of wisdom, the forming of virtue, the knowing of God, and the making of friends.

More than the others, perhaps, this last goal eludes us. Making students into scholars? Yes, we know we should do that. Making them better worshippers? Yes, we know that education ought to strive for that. Making them into friends . . .? It seems to cut against the don’t-smile-till-Christmas grain.

Friendship in general seems cumbersome in a culture which most often uses the word to describe the click of a button on Facebook. Consider the grammar: on Facebook, we trade verbs for nouns and “friend” someone rather than “befriending” as happens in real life, as if we think we can jump past the whole process—an action occurring in and over time—and just declare the relationship into being, ex nihilo, ex time or action or devotion. But when words are stripped, shorn, and severed, the concepts and experiences bound to them are, too. The culture of “friending” endangers true friendship.

For classical educators, then, committed to cultivating endangered traditions and arts and virtues, the rehabilitation of friendship ought to be a central task of teaching. We should speak of it often, describing it as a great good and comfort. We should read poetry that extols friendship, from Ben Jonson’s “Inviting A Friend To Supper” to Robert Frost’s “The Pasture.” We should point it out in tales of literature and history, contemplating the time-honored friendships of Damon and Pythias, David and Jonathan, Hamlet and Horatio, Robin Hood and Little John, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Jane and Elizabeth, Anne and Diana, Frodo and Sam, Rat and Mole.

But, most of all, we should strive to invite our students into friendship.

Aristotle distinguished three kinds of friendship, differentiated by their grounds of love. In friendship based on utility, friends’ love for one another rests on the services they can provide each other. In friendship based on pleasure, their love rests on the pleasure they derive from their companionship. But both of these lower forms of friendship, based ultimately on self-love and passing comforts, are enfolded and surpassed in the highest form of friendship: friendship based on goodness, in which each person is good, pursues the Good, and loves the other for his own sake. Being based on love for the other and love for the Good, this form of friendship not only endures, but also ennobles its partakers.

And if teaching means persuading students to join us in pursuit of the Good, then, on Aristotle’s authority, isn’t it about making them our friends?

Not becoming their friends, for the teacher ought not to become like the student, whether in likes or dislikes or relevancy or habit or virtue; but making them our friends, for the student ought to become like the teacher—who himself must be always striving to become like his own teachers. Follow me, as I follow Christ, said the apostle Paul.

Our ends mold our means, and teaching to make students friends will form our teaching methods. Certainly planning and grading and lecturing remain needful for the unique friendship of teacher and student; but even more significant are our attitudes and approaches to these activities, and our actions outside of them. Aristotle mentions spending time, participating in one another’s emotions, being useful and pleasant to each other, and reminding one another of the Good being pursued as friendship-forming activities.

So do I act as if (and really believe that) spending time with my students is a delight? Am I attentive to the emotions they carry into class, and do I ask for their cause, in order to share them? (To a surprising degree, such sharing can fill the tiny spaces between classes or in the hallways; but it can also filter through a whole lesson. You will speak differently of Odysseus’ sorrow in the assigned reading if you know the particular sorrows of your students.) Do I want to be useful to my students, even when it means extra effort to meet outside of class or send yet another email? Do my students know that I value their usefulness to me—whether in mundane matters such as correct formatting of assignments, or profound ones such as their sharing of questions and insights I would never reach? Do I encourage pleasantry in our time together, affirming the laughter that rises amidst serious discussion and the jesting that occasionally attains the level of wit?

Most of all, amidst the booklists and curricula and problem sets and lab reports and essays, do I point students to the Good from which all these things flow forth and towards which they pull back? Do I encourage students that all our learning is pursuit of this Good—and that I am not prodding students along from behind, but running hard to keep abreast of them? That they are a help to me, as I pray I am to them?

Few other relationships are so naturally grounded in Goodness as that of teacher and students. In few other spheres will you converse with such regularity, discipline, and enthusiasm of the Goodness treasured in music and art, literature and math, science and history. In few other roles will you have recourse to structures that make accountability both firm and graceful. In short, you will have few opportunities so auspicious for the forming of the highest-order friendships.

I have been teaching just long enough to have students a few years out of high school. Some of them have stayed in town for college, and one of the finest delights I have known is the discovery that these students have indeed become friends. Where once I pestered them to turn in late homework, they now pursue me to squeeze coffee and conversation into full schedules. Where I once assigned them books and journalling questions, they now choose the books and bring their questions to book club. Where once I exhorted them that the old ideas have life and meaning, they now prove it again in fresh lives and ways to me.

But all this means much more. For, in making students friends, we are not merely rehabilitating an old philosophy or an old tradition; rather, we are following the example of One who said at the last, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). At the last, perhaps we too may say, “No longer do I call you students, but friends”—and so finally teach our students, and learn ourselves, a little of all it means to be made friends of our Lord.

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