Teaching As Dialogue Book Review by Maarten van Schie

[From Nick Maxwell’s current Friends of Wisdom Newsletter No. 5 (PDF)]


By Harvey B. Sarles
University Press of America: 1993
ISBN 0-8191-8897-2
REVIEW by Maarten van Schie

I’ll give you my opinion forward and frank: I think this is a good book. What I have been reading the past month has been a book about teaching. I have read a few books on teaching, and most of them are full of theories and techniques to teach effectively, with standard presentation tricks like “Say what you are going to say, say it, and then say what you have said.” These books are usually written in the manner of a college textbook, authorative and impersonal.

The book that I have read and am reviewing now writes about teaching in a very different manner. It is, first and foremost, a very personal book. Harvey B. Sarles has written about his vision on what teaching is and what a teacher does and instead of writing about teaching as a job he writes about the teacher as a human being. From this perspective he explores the role of a Teacher, which is “the person who becomes Teacher to one’s students: entering their spirits in some depth”.

I admit I was at first a little put off by the ambitious metaphors of this kind in the beginning of the book. But Harvey Sarles has in his book distilled from the concept of teaching, which may be muddled up in “The Present Age” (Kierkegaard), the purely human and social aspects. And as he puts it, Teaching is not just about transferring knowledge, it has the potential to shape minds and ideas and to inspire.

There are many things to be considered when we look at teaching from that perspective. Teaching is then not just didactive but interactive and a significantly social activity. With that in mind you may start to understand the title of the book. It is not just the teacher that is considered primarily from his being a human being in this book, but also the student. Interaction between the two, then, is in that regard on an equal level. Ideally anyway, as Sarles writes.

The first few chapters of the book explore what a Teacher is and does, conceptually. The Teacher has a lot of knowledge and experience, but does not engage the student as an empty slate, unknowing and uncritical. The student is a peer of sorts, who has right and reason to question the teacher, though the latter is put in the position of teaching, thus having a position of some authority for the student.

So how to “Teach”? There is not one way to do this, different teachers and different subjects have different teaching styles (as is mentioned in the book). Harvey Sarles does not attempt describing how to teach excellently: instead he tells the reader about his experiences and cogitations on teaching. There is a passage, for example, where he shares how he prepares for a class, and how he feels about it. I am not a teacher, but I can imagine many teachers sharing these feelings. The major part of the book is a mixture of these kinds of experiences and the thoughts they lead to. It is in fact hard to distinguish between the two, as he writes mostly with his practice as a basis. This makes the book accessible and fairly easy to read. I can well imagine the settings he describes and relate to his thoughts in these settings. Still it is not a story-book, for his practice feeds the theory he tries to present. Rather, he presents the theory through the way he sees, does and experiences the practice of teaching.

In summary, this is an inspired book about teaching as a human activity, teaching with a capital T. Harvey Sarles explains, from his personal perspective and experience, what teaching is, and what Teaching. He elaborates on practical and philosophical problems to do with teaching, such as problems of power and empowerment (Freire’s problem), the internal dialogue one might have as a teacher, the content and context of teaching, an existential perspective on teaching, teaching towards growth and judgment and evaluation. He concludes with two chapters more focused on the teacher him- or herself learning and taking in knowledge, through auto-didacy and reading. This last chapter contains by far the majority of his references: in in the writer gives the reader reading suggestions for better and worse times, and books that have inspired him. This makes the bibliography of a– refreshingly–different kind than those I usually come across, with many references to authors like Confucius, Castaneda, Freire and Orwell.

The personal style of the book makes it read much like the author is talking to you, lecturing. Lecturing in his own style however, enticing the reader to follow his ideas but think for oneself. This makes it an interesting, for me even inspiring read. As a taster, I will finish with a citation from the book:

“An inspiring…Teacher, lecturer, gets students to want to engage in the future, in their futurity. Inspirational teaching is both good enough to be judged very well—for just what it is—and simultaneously to challenge the students or audience, to want to do it…as well. It is a negotiation over the nature of critical judgment, in which the inspirational activity becomes a touchstone for what is quality. It is a demonstration of what is possible (transcendent) within the mundane and seemingly ordinary…”