On Teaching, Sailing, and Swimming

Today’s guest post comes from Suzanne Smith, who teaches in the History and Literature Department.

…whether one falls into a little swimming pool or into the middle of the biggest sea, one nevertheless swims all the same.  – Plato, Republic 453d

Throughout Plato’s Republic, Socrates provides us with an opportunity to think about images, figures, and metaphors associated with teaching. We are encouraged, for instance, to consider the extent to which the pedagogical task of the philosopher is analogous to that of a pilot of a ship. The notion of the philosopher-teacher as pilot would seem to lend itself to a whole series of somewhat over-obvious metaphors: the teacher tries to steer the class-as-ship, and navigate through the sometimes tumultuous waters of inquiry, while maintaining order, keeping an eye on the well-being of his or her students, and trying to bring them safely to the shore of their collective and individual destinations.

But Socrates reminds us that the pilot is also a sailor, just like any member of the crew, and he describes teaching as a task in which one risks the intellectual equivalent of drowning. Strikingly, he does so while teaching. The pilot-teacher metaphor emerges from a conversation in which Socrates and his students pursue a whole range of questions about justice. Socrates philosophizes about these questions through teaching: there is no division here between the relatively solitary experience of researching, theorizing, and writing, on the one hand, and the social experience of teaching and conversing, on the other. Rather than distributing, via lectures, ready-made lessons about justice to his students, Socrates  attempts to see justice and injustice “coming into being” (Book 2: 369a; Allan Bloom translation) with them, and to argue about what it is that is coming to sight as the discussion proceeds.

Such habits are likely to make the Socratic understanding of teaching seem rather odd to us. Few of us would be inclined to let students know, as Socrates does, that in presenting a given argument to his students, he runs the risk of “slipping from the truth where one least ought to slip” (Book 5: 451a) or to observe that  “to present arguments at a time when one is in doubt and seeking – which is just what I’m doing – is a thing both frightening and slippery” (450d-451a). Socrates describes the task of teaching under such conditions as similar to swimming while “hoping that some dolphin might take us on his back or for some other unusual rescue” (453d).

What does swimming (apart from the need for an ample supply of the figurative equivalents of life jackets and the like) have to do with steering an imaginary ship?  In what sense is the pilot of a ship also to be regarded as being, despite his or her role as leader or in addition to it, just another person on board, trying to stay afloat along with everybody else? What happens to our image of the teacher as the pilot of a ship if we complicate it by also thinking of the teacher as someone immersed in the very element with which he or she is contending? I think it is important to keep in mind that everyone teaching at Harvard holds or is pursuing a doctorate of philosophy. As doctors or would-be doctors of the love of wisdom we try, among other things, to let students see what it might mean to be in love with a scholarly question, and what it would feel like to take risks in following it wherever that question takes us, whether it leads to the conceptual equivalent of a backyard swimming pool or to what the poet Matthew Arnold once called “the unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.”

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