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A fresh approach to teaching with John Senior

Education will not be humanized (and will not humanize) until teachers and students alike first recognize that the realities they teach and learn are offered and received through themselves in an atmosphere of trusting rapport.

John Senior (1923-1999), a graduate of Columbia, served as a professor of the humanities at Cornell University and the University of Kansas. (Image: CNA)

Damage is undoubtedly being done to our young through pernicious relativism, a politicized culture of side-taking, and a social climate that seemingly values physical health above spiritual and intellectual health. With all the divisions in the culture and the tensions swirling around schools, teaching is not a relaxing vocation these days. But the experience of teaching, for both teachers and students, is rendered most effective if it is leisurely, the word “school,” in fact, being rooted in a Greek word meaning “leisure.”

It is during these times of unrest that teachers should consider, even by way of response, a fresh approach and attitude in teaching—one that is more leisurely in the sense of being more of a personal presentation of the material. Such an attitude and approach makes teaching more like the activity of friends enjoying each other’s company, and such a relationship requires an authentic sharing of oneself under relaxed circumstances. And it is this personal touch in teaching is what is missing in many classrooms.

Unfortunately, one of the tragic results of the triple chokehold that demagoguery, diversity, and the almighty dollar have on the American educational system is that teaching is becoming less of an interpersonal art and more of an impersonal programming session with an increasingly fascist slant. Teachers can certainly combat, and hopefully reverse, this crisis by offering students the truth of their subjects through the truth of who they are as teachers—that is, when they teach themselves instead of to the test.

G. K. Chesterton once said with honest irony, “Education is the period during which you are being instructed by somebody you do not know, about something you do not want to know,” which is precisely what education should not be. Denouncing those who systematize and stagnate education in this way, the late Kansas University professor, co-founder of the Integrated Humanities Program, and Catholic teacher John Senior wrote in his unpublished but still highly regarded work The Restoration of Innocence: An Idea of a School:

They often say derisively, ‘He teaches himself instead of the subject.’ But he is the subject. If there is reason for derision it isn’t such teaching but 087654321`he failure (usually the vanity) of the teacher. Every teacher teaches himself. And every student studies himself.

If teachers are to teach effectively, they must, as Senior put it, teach themselves, that is, teach through who they actually are as people. It is a well-worn adage that teachers can only give what they have, and what they have most intimately are their own selves. No PowerPoint presentation can come close to the power of a person willing to reveal his life and loves in the context of a subject he is passionate about, and it is that honesty in the classroom that will both preserve and restore the innocence so under attack by cynicism.

With such teachers—and many have had them and remember them best—students advance with eagerness and energy towards their individual perfection, discovering themselves through a teacher’s sharing of himself. In this approach, the importance of personal experiences that augment and enliven the subject matter to create human connections cannot be emphasized enough.

Education is an encounter and engagement with things good, true, and beautiful in the context of natural human interactions for the sake of human happiness. As an action exercised by one human being upon and with another, education has far more to do with friendship and faith than with career-oriented, politically correct lesson plans and talking points. Education can never be automated or prepackaged. It requires a dynamic relationship, and relationships require human presence and dynamics, together with an open heart, an open mind, a good will, a knowledge of things, and facility in conversation.

Subjects and academic rigors there must be, of course, but the mode of approach is central to any meaningful education. In following the ordinary principles of human interaction, teachers can be extraordinary educators, and the same can be said for students—especially once both come to the realization that they must teach and learn universal truths through their particular perspectives. For example, students of C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves will be far keener and more disposed to learn if it involves hearing how their teacher fell in love rather than with the text alone.

Teachers must be personal if they intend to teach people. Human beings find other human beings interesting, and teachers must be human when they teach if they are to form human beings. Furthermore, teachers should draw their students towards the material as people themselves, not as programs following a closed system, urging them to reflect inwardly and speak outwardly. Again, from Dr. Senior:

Leonardo da Vinci said Narcissus contemplating the reflection of his own beauty in the mirror of a pool was the perfect artist—the perfect student, too, who sees in the mirror of language and nature a reflection of himself, discovering himself through what he thinks and feels. The anesthetic boy reflecting what the teacher says, rather than his own sensitive, emotional, volitional and intellectual experience, is as vain as the actor-teacher putting on an empty show.

True education is more than the mere memorization of information or the assimilation of facts. It is a cultivation of soul that, as John Henry Newman says in his Idea of a University, “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character.” The formation of character implies an active character, and that character, that subject, again as Senior posits, is the teacher and the student.

The more honest a teacher is about who he is, the more honest will his students become, beholding who they themselves are in the shared light of their educator who leads them joyfully, as a flesh-and-blood person, out of the Platonic cave of shadows. Teachers who teach themselves so that students can learn who they are and through who they are, establish an atmosphere of friendliness and mutual understanding—they establish rapport.

Senior’s idea rings with role of rapport in education. Rapport is the relationship championed by the famous Italian priest and teacher of the 19th century, Don John Bosco, wherein mutual trust and respect is nurtured in a spirit of friendship, sympathy, and cooperation. The teacher who is actually and clearly interested in helping people become better and more fulfilled will win the hearts of students.

Rapport arises when this human understanding between them takes shape: that the teacher sincerely cares about the welfare of the student and the student appreciates this and acts accordingly. When rapport is established, a teacher can become a positive influence as a person upon people, and the students will strive to please those whom they love, for love is the beginning and end of rapport. And love is impossible without a human connection.

Education will not be humanized (and will not humanize) until teachers and students alike first recognize that the realities they teach and learn are offered and received through themselves in an atmosphere of trusting rapport. They should freely teach and learn the eternal truths through their own personal observations, experiences, perspectives, studies, thoughts, and queries. They should enjoy the material together as friends, talking about what they think, observe, like, and do not like. They should allow ideas to intermingle with stories instead of scripts.

Conversations do not have plans. Neither do dynamic, interpersonal relationships which bring about perfection in the educational arena; namely, the perfection of a person at the hands of another person, a teacher, who is not afraid to teach himself, despite what fears or farces reign in the world all around.


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About Sean Fitzpatrick 19 Articles
Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania. He teaches Literature, Mythology, and Humanities. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, the Cardinal Newman Society’s Journal for Educators, and the Imaginative Conservative. He lives in Scranton with his wife, Sophie, and their seven children.

5 Comments

  1. John Senior, whose influence prompted the conversion and monastic vocation of some of his students, ought to be a model for all Catholic teachers. To open a person’s mind is to also open their heart and soul – what a lofty vocation, indeed. If I were a headmaster at a Catholic school or academic dean of a college, all new-hires among faculty would read John Senior’s unpublished manuscript.

    I note, parenthetically, that yesterday a grand jury in Loudon County VA indicted the Superintendent and another official in that case surrounding the “trans-boy/girl” who used the girls bathroom at school and proceeded to rape a female student and which was then covered up. My guess is that faculty and administration in the Loudon County school system never even heard of John Senior. For shame.

    • I wish we could get a link to that document. I tried but to no avail. I did email the monks at Clear Creek thinking that perhaps they might have a copy in their library since they sell some of Senior’s published works.

  2. How much do we strive for excellence? When someone is outstanding in their field, do we give them encouragement?
    Accolades and honorariums are important, yet a thank you from humble unexpected source perhaps is a greater reward.

    When someone has blessed us, give thanks to the Lord and to the individual.

    Psalm 100:1-5 A Psalm for giving thanks. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

    Psalm 107:1 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!

    James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

    Ephesians 5:20 Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

  3. I stand corrected, but I believe his book you are looking for is called “The Restoration of Christian Culture.” It is a sequel to the book, “The Death of Christian Culture.”

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