Thursday, February 2, 2012

Higgins' "good life" — and internal and external goods

Thanks to Chris for getting us started with a very lucid account of the overall project of Higgins' book.

Like Jim Spence, I have reservations about the philosophical background that informs Higgins' book: the ancient ethics/modern morality contrast is (I believe) is overdrawn. But rather than be drawn into a discussion of moral philosophy, I'd prefer to focus on Higgins' more immediate project of investigating the goods of teaching.

Figures like Macintyre, Williams, Taylor, etc., get the greatest attention from Higgins, but I think we can all agree that the intellectual progenitor of Higgins' investigation is Aristotle. I understand Higgins' aim as trying to identified the internal goods of the craft of teaching. (Higgins talks of 'practices' rather than crafts, but I'll overlook whatever differences exist between those notions here.) If Aristotle was right and every craft has an internal good (or goods) that define it and at which genuine practitioners of the craft must aim, then it seems reasonable to suppose that teaching, since it seems to be learnable, to involve the development of various human excellences, etc., would also be a craft with its own internal goods.

There's a lot of the book to get to until Higgins identifies the internal goods of teaching. But I would like to note that though Aristotle thought of crafts as having internal goods, the realization of these internal goods (he thought) also depended on the availability of other external goods. A physician can be knowledgeable, conscientious, etc., but he could not realize the internal good of medicine — health, presumably —without an array of external goods, like proper instruments, a hygienic clinical setting, etc.

So too with teaching: The internal good of teaching, from the teacher's rather than students' perspective, can presumably not be realized without various external goods. I think we've all heard stories of decrepit schools in poor communities, with outdated textbooks, perpetual violence, and the like. There are certain minimal material conditions for the act of teaching to be worthwhile for teachers. But I would extend these external goods to other goods less directly connected to the act of teaching as such: a just environment, reasonable pay, safe working conditions, community solidarity and support, etc.

When I talk to students who wish to become teachers, their trepidation stems not from a lack of appreciation of whatever the internal goods of teaching might be. Their trepidation stems instead from a quite reasonable belief that our society cares little about providing the external goods necessary not only for students to learn but for teachers to grow and realize the internal goods of their profession.

Higgins' book is not political. I say this not as a criticism — only to note that little of his book focuses on external goods. And though the external goods provided to those in higher education are greater than those in K-12 education, we're witnessing a society slowly but surely withdrawing from its responsibility to treat education as a public good.

This is a long way of saying that though the task Higgins sets himself in this book is an admirable one, his apolitical approach to the institutional contexts in which we actually teach neglects the fact that it is not lack of appreciation of the internal goods of teaching that makes teaching a difficult and sometimes dispiriting profession. It's the lack of external goods necessary to realize the internal goods.

And here I'll register a critical note: Higgins wants us to recover a self-interested (but not narrowly selfish!) way of talking about the ethics of teaching, one that circumvents the stereotype of teaching as a "helping profession". Agreed. But in the meantime, I'd like to endorse some selfishness — to advocate that we insist that our communities put their external goods where their mouths are and actually make education the 'top priority' we claim it is. If they did, the internal goods of teaching would flow much more freely.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Michael. I do wonder about why the political dimension seems to be missing from Higgins' discussion. How we think about teaching, I would think, depends to some extent on the political role it serves and what we see as the internal goods can also depend on that role. For example, a teacher who teaches at an undeserved community probably sees some internal goods that other teachers, in different circumstances, do not. Furthermore, if we understand ourselves to be serving a political role then I think it makes sense to demand of the public that they allow the profession to flourish by giving us the necessary external goods.


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