Aude Sapere! Kant and the Power of Great Teaching

Courage to know! Dare to think! The motto is as ubiquitous as it is famous. Indeed, who today is not expected to dare to think? Certainly, this is a common expectation of students. Teachers regularly insist: “Have courage to make use of your own understanding!” (8:35).

“Aude Sapere!” Immanuel Kant exhorted his readers in the essay “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” Free yourself from others’ thoughts! Indeed, the transition from an immature dependency on the thoughts of others to full intellectual autonomy is central to Kant’s definition of enlightenment. But, however brief the phrase, “Aude Sapere!” is not an easy principle to follow. In many ways, it can be read as a synecdoche for Kant’s whole philosophical system.

I wonder: can or ought Kant’s motto for the enlightenment be accepted as a contemporary educational motto? If one were to adopt it, would one mean – either by choice or by necessity – what Kant meant?

“Good education is exactly that from which all the good in the world arises” (9:448).

In the late 18th century, the University of Königsberg required that its philosophy faculty offer a regular pedagogy course. Between 1776-1787, Kant taught this course four times, and his lecture notes from these courses were passed on to and compiled by his student, F.T. Rink.

In these lectures, Kant claims the importance of education. It is what distinguishes humans from other animals: “The human being is the only creature that must be educated” (9:447). Our potential to become truly human – that is, as we are naturally predisposed to be – depends on the ongoing process of each generation teaching the next.“To have trained one’s children is not enough, rather what really matters is that they learn to think” (9:450).

Throughout, Kant’s pedagogical and philosophical claims interrelate. Discussions of freedom, morality, and the appropriate exercise of reason saturate the lessons. The “science of pedagogy” matters because pedagogy can make pure and practical philosophy possible. Proper education enables morality and freedom. For Kant, the great power of teaching is its power to enable thinking.

But thinking for Kant is not a simple activity. In fact, true thinking is a relatively rare and difficult enterprise. Thinking requires that the passions be disciplined, lest reason be seduced to mistake pleasure or pain for the ground of its actions. Thinking requires that one not confuse actual freedom with the illusions of whim and whimsy. Most importantly, thinking is a moral activity, which, in turn, defines education as a moral activity.

According to Kant, rewards, punishment, and commands [the stock in trade of many a teacher past and present, may I note] motivate only immature, lazy, or cowardly thinkers. Good should be done simply and only because it is good, full stop. While the use of discipline rightly and helpfully curbs bad habits and natural human inclinations toward error, “morality is something so holy and sublime that one must not degrade it and place it on the same level with discipline” (9:481). Kant offers a number of concrete proposals for moral education, including Socratic methods of teaching, the corrective uses of shame, and the potential efficacy of a “catechism of right” as a uniform teaching tool.

Rather than take up Kant’s specific proposals, I want to stop here to emphasize how closely Kant holds philosophy and pedagogy together. The possibility of enlightenment depends on pedagogy and education. Education provides the training, skills, and cultural awareness necessary for successful engagement in society. But education must also cultivate students’ moral disposition. The qualities of a moral disposition that recognizes the universality of duty and freedom in Kant’s philosophical senses, in turn, determine what ought to be the techniques and goals of education.

In my introductory post, I noted that teaching is never neutral. This is undoubtedly true for Kant, and this exploration gives rise to any number of provocative questions. For instance, does Kant illustrate something important about the roles philosophies play in determining how we teach? Do rewards, punishments, and directives contradict or complicate some educational goals? What is the morality of pedagogy? Ought “Aude Sapere!” be accepted as a motto for contemporary education? If so, with what meaning? Perhaps most importantly, though, I would like to know: what questions does Kant raise for you in thinking about pedagogy?

When I return in three weeks for the next installment of the series, religion will join morality to take center stage in the arguments of Horace Bushnell, a 19th century pastor and theologian.

* Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” In Practical Philosophy, edited by Mary J Gregor, translated by Mary J Gregor, 15-22. The Cambridge edition of the works of Immanuel Kant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Widener WID-LC B2758 .G74 1996

** Kant, Immanuel. “Lectures on Pedagogy.” In Anthropology, History, and Education, edited by Günter Zöller and Robert B Louden, translated by Robert B Louden, 337-485. Cambridge edition of the works of Immanuel Kant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Widener WID-LC B2758 .G75 2007

4 thoughts on “Aude Sapere! Kant and the Power of Great Teaching

  1. I think the morality of pedagogy is well explained in this quote from Kant:
    “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.”

    Imagine what kind of world we could have if everybody would have this in mind before doing anything wrong. It’s like saying : Act as if somebody’s watching.

  2. kant raises an interesting pedagogical question for me. crudely put, i think kant’s understanding of the modern project maintains that in a universal and peaceful rep., all people are capable of being fully rational, a position that logically requires believing that all people are by nature equal. i think this (being fully rational, all people are equal by nature) is theoretically and practically impossible. some gaps education can’t bridge. kant’s position places enlightenment or education in an interesting light by raising the problem of obfuscation. in this instance, knowledge and opinion, generally and for the most part, become one and the same. that makes education impossible. anywho, great post! not many people can make kant conversational.

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