Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Higgins The Good Life: Worlds of Practice

In the second chapter Higgins identifies three domains of goods in which virtues are meaningful - moral traditions, individual life narratives, and practices. The web of connections among these give rise to our individual values and meanings. Practices are the main focus here, because his interest is in teaching as a practice, and Higgins distinguishes two sorts of goods internal to a practice. The first can be realized as a community, as when football fans watch an exciting and well played Superbowl. The second can be realized by a particular member of that community, which he refers to as 'internal goods located in the practitioner'. I find the discussion of goods and their interconnection with practices, life narratives, and traditions giving rise to meaning interesting and reflection provoking.

One of Higgins’ main themes, as Michael has previously noted, is that there is value to thinking about the internal goods located in the teacher-practitioner.  I agree, although I am finding it difficult for reasons Higgins mentions. When I think of teaching, the closest analog I can find is medicine. Both teaching and medicine seem other and outcome oriented, and in both one party is in a superior position enabling them to confer benefits to the other. Just as the physician has expertise the patient lacks and aims at the health of the patient, so we as educators have an expertise and aim at the education of our students. For this reason it is difficult for me to tease out why teaching is good independent of the benefit to the student. But this problem seems to suggest a solution, or at least a starting place. Teaching and doctoring are both similar to parenting. All three provide rare opportunities in which my good (as teacher, physician, or parent) and the good of another person are so intertwined that it is difficult to sort them out. I think this intermingling of goods is itself a good and valuable life experience, though it is difficult to articulate why. It also seems on had by the teacher (or physician) more than the student (or patient).

I’m also finding it difficult to think of goods which are realized as a community, if our community is those of us who happen to be in the classroom at the same time. Although teaching seems quite clearly to be a practice, it is unclear to me that we teachers and our students are in a practice-community in the way that the football community is a community. The football community is voluntary, with a clearly shared moral phenomenology. But the students in our classroom may not share any of our values, and their presence is often the result of a choice that is unrelated to the goals of education. (Prior to college, it may not be the result of any choice at all.) Perhaps one of the virtues of a teacher is being able to draw such students in, but to say that seems to presuppose to some value outside of the teaching practice itself, such as knowledge.

Both of these lines of thinking lead me to suspect that either we need something which transcends moral traditions, life narratives and practices or we are left in something of an existential quandary.  In fairness to Higgins, he seems sympathetic to the latter in places.


  1. Jim, interesting reflections. You ask how we might understand Higgins' proposal that there are goods to be realized via a teaching community. One of the oddities of higher ed is that, for the most part, we teach alone. We humanists do much of our research alone too, but notice that we have no difficulty talking about the "philosophy community" or the "scholarly community." (See this older post of mine for similar thoughts:

    I think of ISW as a community, but it seems to be rare for anyone to think of themselves as part of a teaching community. I think before we can imagine the goods that might be realized through a teaching community, we might ask what values have led to the situation in which teaching is seen as an almost entirely solitary act.

  2. I'm coming to the conversation a year late, but still find some interesting observations here, after I recently read Higgins's book. I'm a secondary school teacher, and one interested in the philosophy of education. As a classicist (I teach Latin, inter alia) I'm sympathetic to much of Higgins's eudaimonistic ethics, though this book is my first foray into his other intellectual predecessors MacIntyre and Williams.

    Jim, you are not the first to draw an analogy between teaching in medicine. However, I suggest this analog is shaky at best. For one thing, it assumes that there is something wrong in the student, that there is a sickness to be cured, or an underlying condition to be managed. Yet there is some truth to the parallel. I think your analogy to parenting has some validity, but also some limitations: while a teacher sometimes acts in loco parentis, there are also ways in which the teacher-student relationship is different: it is limited in time, and usually limited in domain. That's why it's important not to draw out these kinds of analogies so far, though I admit they are certainly useful to a limited extent.

    There is perhaps more of a community of teachers in the pre-tertiary levels, at least in an (idealized?) sense. Yes, there is congeniality among teachers, but there is also sometimes a collegiality as well. I certainly think of myself as part of a teaching community. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that Latin teachers are odd ducks and we birds of a feather tend to flock together. But in my experience it's not just limited to us Classicists; I count teachers of math, English, history as part of the community through which I experience the good of teaching.

    One aspect of Ch.2 that bears mention, in my opinion, is on page 57 in which H. writes, "In learning how to transform material into something excellent, the practitioner must also transform herself. The practitioner's self is the second ergon, if you will, of any practice." I think this is the crux of Higgins argument in this chapter, and is part of his argument for why teaching is good independent of the benefit to the student: because it is a benefit to the teacher as well.


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