I believe that establishing a community of truth in any classroom requires vulnerability, humility, courage, and an infectious passion for the subject. And it also requires a kind of love - specifically, the kind of love described in the Ancient Greek concept of Agape.1
To be absolutely clear, when using the word "love," there are those who might recoil, but this would only be through a misunderstanding of the point I am trying to make. There are plenty of cases in all levels of education where teachers have abused their position of trust and engaged in a different kind of love - Eros. In no way is my use of the word "love" here meant in this way. Indeed, we all know that there probably is no better way than to destroy a community of truth than to engage in an inappropriate relationship with one of your students. But the ancient Greeks articulated four different kinds of love, including Eros (the type of love not being suggested here), Storge (empathy), Philia, the type of love through which we love our friends and family, and Agape - which refers to a very different sort of love than the other three. It is also one we do not talk about much, especially in education.
One of the modern world's most expressive proponents of Agape love was Dr. Martin Luther King, and it was central to his belief in the importance and impact of non-violent protest. He explained through many sermons and writings that agape is not a sentimental or affectionate kind of love, but rather love in the sense of deep understanding and redemptive good will.
Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object… It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets.... Consequently, the best way to assure oneself that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution.
Most faith traditions also contain this concept. The notion of Agape is nearly identical to one of Buddhism’s four brahmaviharas, or divine attitudes — the concept of Metta, often translated as loving kindness or benevolence. In Japanese culture, it is expressed in the word amae, or “indulgent love,” that dictates that all relationships should be based on the kind of love that indulges people’s needs as well as their idiosyncrasies, even when it is difficult to do so. Christianity also contains the concept, and uses it to describe God’s love for man. The passage of the bible often used in wedding ceremonies - from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians - speaks to this:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis describes this as a selfless love, a love that is passionately committed to the well-being of another, and argues that it is the "greatest of the four loves." This kind of love transcends and serves regardless of circumstances.
Sometimes students don’t like us very much - they may even say they “hate” us - and feel free to leave us fairly savage evaluations. But despite this, students are never our enemies. When, for example, you hear a colleague or two complaining about their students (late to class, bad behavior, surfing their laptops, etc.) this sets up a dynamic that can damage community. Dr. King reminds us of the centrality of community in the concept of Agape this way:
Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action… Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community…. If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.
The idea of applying this sort of love to students is not a common one, but it is also not a new one. The progressive 18th Century Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was groundbreaking in his time for his work educating the whole student, seeking to achieve "an equilibrium of what he called 'head, hands and heart.'" Pestalozzi believed there was an "inner dignity" to each student, and that “without love, neither the physical nor the intellectual powers will develop naturally.”
It is OK to love our students - in the Agape sense - and to admit that to others and even to them. Indeed, I believe we are better teachers when we do.
Letters of Recommendation
In no way do I want to minimize how difficult, sad, and tragic the last year has been. Or, to minimize in any way the reality that Louis Armstrong suffered persistent and sickening racism throughout his life. Or, to minimize the fact that he sang this song to a primarily white audience, in 1967, and was sometimes accused (fairly, or not) of being an “Uncle Tom,” engaged in assuaging white guilt. But here’s the thing. Despite all of that - which is important to recognize and respect - in spite of all he lived through he was able to sing this tune, with these beautiful words, and do it with a 1,000 watt smile, and with his extraordinary voice and artistry. We often focus on what is bad in the world - after all, there’s plenty of it, and our media nightmare amplifies it to sell soap. So, this might be the reminder we need - to take a step back and reflect - perhaps even more now than when he sang it in a similarly turbulent time. Spring is coming. We’re going to get through this.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Question:
Do you agree, or disagree, that we should strive to offer our students agape love?
Today’s newsletter is an excerpt from a longer article I have written recently - about the course I teach, and what it requires to teach well. More about that in a future letter to you.