Frank Breslin: Thoughts on teaching the humanities

I recently retired after 40 years of teaching in the New Jersey public school system, where I taught English, Latin, German, and social studies. Before that, in the late 1960’s, I was a caseworker with welfare recipients in the inner city of Philadelphia, and prior to that I spent a thousand years in undergraduate and graduate schools, where I majored in the classics and German. For the past 29 years, I was teaching at Delaware Valley Regional High School in Frenchtown, NJ, a suburban high school in Hunterdon County.

Going to high school and college in the 1950’s and 1960’s was a different world than today, when there was more time to be human, and the academic standards were high. As time progressed, however, the country’s school systems, under federal and state laws, became more centralized, bureaucratized, and over-organized to a point where now they have become virtually unrecognizable from what past generations knew.

But even in the past, high schools, not only in this country, but abroad as well, failed their students in one central way. They never tried to teach students to think. As a teacher, I’ve always made it my resolve to right that wrong by keeping the critical spirit of the philosophical schools of antiquity alive, so that students would feel that they were part of something significant when they left my class.

Adolescents have always been a skeptical lot. Anything and everything is fair game to them, and woe betide what is found wanting. Criticism comes easily to these professional critics who are taking the world’s measure and finding themselves. Yet, high schools waste this irreverence by failing to harness, exploit, and turn it to educational use. By failing to tap into this abundant resource, they forgo their most precious asset – the intellectual restlessness of youth itself. By barring this critical spirit from the classroom, high schools teach that questioning is wrong and should play no part in one’s education. If one wants it, one must get it on one’s own – such is the lesson schools often convey.

This is regrettable, for what could transform the classroom by encouraging students to think for themselves became one of life’s many what-might-have-beens. Students are naturally curious and want to hear all sides of a question; they welcome the clash, the drama, the excitement of opposing opinions, and yet the schools deny them precisely what would capture their interest. Schools, by being locked into State curricula, have marginalized many students to educational limbos, where many lose interest and, finally, dismiss schools are irrelevant.

It was with this in mind that, over the past several decades, I tried to bring this critical spirit of inquiry into the classroom. Whether it was creating courses on Modern Thought, the philosophical foundations of American History, technical introductions into Critical Thinking, Classical Greece, Greek Tragedy, the Bible as Literature, the teaching of Shakespeare, CP and AP English IV, I resolved to teach against the grain of inherited student expectations by welcoming students’ questioning spirit.

Students learned to take into account the historical era in which a particular answer or theory arose, the philosophical reasons and cultural forces which prompted that answer, the counterarguments that were raised at the time. They learned how to detect fallacies in logical reasoning; dissect and refute faulty arguments; classify statements into their respective categories to determine which could and couldn’t be proven and why; in short, they learned not what to think, but how to think. By observing how each answer interacted with others over the centuries – how each qualified, complemented, or critiqued the others — students explored not only the contours of specific question, but the texture of critical thought itself.

To be sure, a school must teach the factual, but if it imparts no more than that, it ultimately fails its students. It must also teach them how to think for themselves. Indeed, everything else is an educational frill! If the purpose of education isn’t to train the mind to think critically, and to instill the courage to do it, what then is its purpose? One would do better to leave school and educate oneself! Why then learn to read, if one isn’t also taught to judge the worth of what one is reading? Why learn to memorize, if one isn’t at the same time taught how to organize these facts into meaningful patterns, which reveal the Big Picture? Seneca had it right when he said that it’s not for school that we learn, but rather for life!

Teaching courses in this way entails the responsibility to present all sides of a question. The point is not to make converts, but critical thinkers. The teacher must not take a stand, but simply argue, or better, have students argue, each position convincingly. Teaching only one point of view isn’t teaching, but indoctrination. A teacher’s questions must stretch students’ minds to discover the complexity, the magnitude, of issues and questions, and illuminate them from several perspectives. These questions may be specific or open-ended; they may elaborate or imply; they may prompt introspection or conjecture; they may seem to affirm or deny; they may probe and dissect – but they must never resolve.

A teacher owes it to students to confound them, to have them feel the power of every position, to keep them in doubt as to which answer is right. A teacher must try to enter into students’ perceptions of truth to help them evaluate these perceptions critically. With some, the teacher plays the liberal; with others, the conservative; with all, the devil’s advocate. Plato went to the heart of the matter: “Philosophy begins in wonder.” Wonder, not certainty, opens the mind. Certainty only closes it. A teacher’s role is to make students uncertain.

This kind of teaching stimulates not only thinking, but also feeling. It introduces students to a question’s emotional landscape. It explores, through empathy, how it feels to hold a particular viewpoint by exploring its emotional landscape – the emotional advantages and disadvantages of holding it; it seeks not to judge or condemn, but only to understand.

Teaching, like parenting, is an act of faith. One never knows what the future will bring. The harvest is always beyond our control. Yet one hopes to have opened a few young minds, to instill students with the confidence to use their own judgment, to think with courage and rational calm, to awaken a love for the romance of ideas, and to suggest that one’s education, like philosophy, not only begins in wonder, but may end there, too.

Teaching the Greeks

The first day of class, I enter the classroom, hold up our class text, Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, and announce, “Two ways of reading a book.” I then hold the book at arm’s length as if reading it. Then I kneel down, head reverently bowed over the text, as if reading a prayer book. I get up, slowly look around the class, and ask: ‘What was my point? What two states of mind are induced toward reading this book by adopting these two different postures?” A three-minute discussion follows, the question unresolved, and no one sure where it’s all heading.

“Truth! How do we know when we have it?” Pause. “If we’re absolutely sure that we have it, more sure than of the fact we exist, does that mean we have truth? Does overpowering certainty prove that something is true?” Several answers, as I tell students to simply speak up, without raising their hand. “If you’re certain you’re right, but inner certainty doesn’t prove that you are, does that mean that you’re wrong?” Students venture a few answers, and others nod in agreement. “If being certain you’re right doesn’t mean that you’re right or you’re wrong, what, then, does it mean?” Students try to sort themselves out.

“Is something moral, if your society says it’s moral?” Pause. “Or does society say it’s moral because it is right?” An extremely long pause, and a student replies that it’s right if your society says it’s right, and gives a few reasons why this is the case. “Fine, now argue the converse.” Taken aback, the class makes a case for the opposite view. I pause a few seconds and ask, “Now, how would you refute what’s just been said?” Students, warming to the subject, mount a spirited rebuttal. I continue, “What would the opposition say in response?” And, again, a good counter-rebuttal is made.

Now, given the fact that we’ve made two good cases for both sides, with good rebuttals, how would we know which answer is correct?” Dead silence. I wait 30 seconds, leisurely pacing around the room, then sit in one of the empty desks. Still no response. I move on to the next question.

Let me make the question even more interesting, now that we’ve solved that one. [general laughter] Is it possible that many of the things you’ve been taught in school or at home could be wrong? Everything your parents, teachers, and everyone you usually look to for answers, except in this class, that all of them might have been wrong? Sincere though they were, but wrong?” A few students slowly nod their assent, while others keep silent.

Would this matter as long as everyone thought it was true and was happy believing it?” Different answers are given, once again, without my commenting on whatever is said, showing neither approval or disapproval, but simply encouraging as students to speak up, conveying more by manner than word that they are free to say whatever they wish. I slightly alter the question. “As long as everyone thought that they had the right answers, were content and happy believing in them, would that be okay even if everything they believed in was wrong?” Students, getting their second wind, begin to give more nuanced responses.

Let’s bring it a little closer to home. What if much of what we were taught, say, as a society, a nation, or culture, were an illusion, but it all seemed true because that’s all we knew, and everyone we knew also believed the same thing and was happy with it. Would it then be okay to keep on believing in it?” Students offer various answers.

Let’s get a little more real. Would it be foolish to question these ideas if you doubted they were true, even though everyone else thought that they were, but you didn’t, but knew, if you did speak up, you wouldn’t be popular anymore, might lose friends, even be punished, lose your job, be put in prison, or executed?” Students are unsure how to respond, but some make valiant attempts, while many stay silent.

What if you didn’t go public with your doubts, but decided it was better to play it safe and not create waves, and only shared them with a few close friends. Would this be prudent or cowardly? Would your silence eat away at you?” There being no response, I deepen the question: “Would you have a moral obligation to speak out, a responsibility to let your voice be heard, because you felt you were right? Or would this be suicidal?” A variety of answers are given, and I ask students to elaborate on a few, so that others can hear their reasoning. As always, the question ends without resolution.

A three-paragraph aside. I’ve begun this article “in medias res” to convey from the outset a sense of how the course was conducted for almost 30 years. Naturally, my reason for asking these questions wasn’t only to elicit answers, but to accustom my college-prep and advanced placement seniors to think in a sustained and systematic philosophical way that rarely ever occurs in American high schools.

This nine-week introduction to the Greeks set the stage for the rest of the year in a number of ways, but primarily in giving students the critical-thinking skills needed to do well in college. In learning the critical method of philosophical discourse, how the mind comes at issues from several different angles at once, bobbing and weaving, thrusting and parrying, detecting fallacies, classifying statements, testing assumptions, dissecting arguments, analyzing evidence, and arguing all sides of a question in a disciplined and methodical way, 17-year-olds learned an ensemble of technical skills that, again, are rarely taught in American high schools for a number of reasons.

There was no such thing as heresy in the course. Students could say whatever they wished, provided they were willing to support it and, hopefully, say it in good English. For my part, I taught students not what to think, but how to think and, by so doing, tried to open for them the immensity of these timely and timeless questions raised by the Greeks, so that students could understand by doing that philosophy is nothing else but asking an endless series of “whys” in an eternal romance with questions, that ‘‘the love of wisdom grows out of wonder,” and that the best way of teaching philosophy is the lived experience of wrestling with questions.

To be continued…

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[…] This is the second part of Frank Breslin’s essay on teaching the humanities. Click here for part 1. […]

Greg Zolton II

Please transmit this to Mr. Breslin – I was one of your students, graduated 2003. You were the best teacher I’ve ever had in my life, and your Latin I and II classes instilled in me a love for philosophy that has upheld me and guided me my entire life.

I entered your class, as you described, a student told what to think and how to act. I exited questioning everything – through this, I found myself, and my place in the world, by questioning and learning what the ancient philosophers had to say about life and how to live it. All I can say now, with tears in my eyes, is “thank you”. I’m a better man for having taken your class, a better human being for being exposed to the philosophy you taught. You changed my life, and I’m ever in your debt.

Thank you, more than words can say,
Greg Zolton II
Class of 2003

sherida yoder

I love this testament to the power of a teacher, the impact on a student, and the beauty of the shared life of the mind. Both this teacher and this student are an inspiration.

Emily Bondor

I too was a student of Frank Breslin. My two older siblings and I all had him for AP English IV. I am the youngest and so was encouraged by them both to also take Latin I from Mr. Breslin in junior year. I am very grateful to have gotten two years in his classroom. Mr. Breslin is truly a remarkable teacher. Through his teaching career he was able to impart indelible curiosity and taught students how to create cogent and well researched arguments. He went above and beyond to share aphorisms and little nuggets of wisdom in Latin and English class that stick with me to this day. Enormous gratitude to you, Mr. Breslin!
Emily Bondor
DVRHS class of 2007