There’s no substitute for love, even in the classroom

Without commitments – the ties that bind us to reality, to tradition, to what is good, to each other – the world falls apart

Robert PriceMaterialists say money makes the world go around, when in fact the force that drives humanity is love. All that’s bad in the world results from too little, too much or misdirected love.

By saying this, I might be outing myself as an old-fashioned idealist. As I write this on a sunny spring morning, I think I can live with that.

My point is that there’s no substitute for love. Not in relationships between people and what is a classroom but a relationship?

The people in the room – students and teacher – either care for each other and the knowledge they share, or they don’t. When they don’t, not much can happen.

This statement of fact is unlikely to startle anybody. Nevertheless, a team of researchers undertook a study to determine what leads to better university teaching. The results, published in Contemporary Educational Psychology, found that university professors who enjoy teaching and who see the importance of teaching do a better job as teachers than those who do not. Getting better teaching out of professors goes beyond guilt trips and bonuses. It comes down to the most basic aspect of life: whether you care.

The research focused on teachers but I’m sure the findings also run the other way: Students who love what they study tend to fare better than students who hate what they do.

The evidence is all around. Ask high-performing students why they do well and they’ll likely respond, “I love what I do!”

The sentiment is so pervasive, a person might wonder whether schools should teach students how to love.

If we were to write a curriculum for such a program on love, I’d argue for a remedial course in belief. For there is no love, and no commitment, without belief.

The academy, as it exists today, teaches aggressive skepticism. The reasoning goes that truth is what remains after we’ve exhausted all doubt.

There’s logic in this approach. If we remove all doubt, then truth should be all that remains. It’s like that line about Michelangelo and his block of marble – all he did was remove the excess marble to reveal the sculpture inside.

Trouble arises when the skeptical (or ‘objective’) attitude becomes permanent and belief becomes impossible, and even unwanted. If believers are plagued with hopeless naiveté and fantastical thinking, skeptics subject themselves to a joy-killing, life-killing cynicism. In his worst incarnation, the skeptic transforms into the ugliest manifestation of his opposite: a proselytizing theocrat. Except instead of preaching belief (however terrible and impossible that belief may be), the hopeless skeptic locates his pulpit in the Church of Nothing.

In nihilism, nothing can exist that deserves commitment. Without commitments – the ties that bind us to reality, to tradition, to what’s good, to each other – the world falls apart.

Obviously, teaching to love doesn’t preclude teaching the detached attitude of the skeptic. But we should be wary of those who fetishize doubt and skepticism to the point where they begin every conversation with a critique.

Doubt is a path to knowledge but so is belief. As the writing theorist Peter Elbow explained, belief also reveals truth through trial. We can doubt a premise – that is, attempt to take it apart – and if it falls, we can say it was never true. Similarly, we can try to believe a premise into existence – to build it up – and if it can’t hold its form, we can say it never was.

Belief inculcates a different attitude in a person than does doubt. Doubt relies on critique and critique is usually (eventually) followed by cynicism. In the academy, the result is indiscriminate criticism – called “deconstruction” – that doesn’t seek to preserve what’s good and can’t build, but destroys for the sake of destroying, usually out of spite and envy.

Belief demands effort and creativity in ways that doubt does not. It requires commitment, caring and love.

While some ideas will always be impossible to believe, I say it’s better to try to believe.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.


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