31 March 2004

The fearful responsibility of a teacher

Apparently Princeton has justified its hiring of Peter Singer by appealing to academic freedom. As a university instructor myself I would hardly be opposed to academic freedom. But when does freedom become mere licence? The mantra of academic freedom can be used to justify a multitude of sins.

Shortly after I began teaching, I had a jarring experience one day sitting at table in the cafeteria with several of my students. I have always immensely enjoyed my students, and even back then I sensed a considerable rapport with them. In the course of our conversation, one of them repeated back to me something I had mentioned in class as if it were gospel truth. As I recall, she didn't cite me as the source, but it had evidently become part of her -- and perhaps part of the very fabric of the cosmos as she was coming to understand it from her youthful vantage point. I found this jarring, because in an instant I understood the great influence teachers can have over their students -- for good or for ill. That night I had difficulty sleeping. I had the words of the apostle James running through my head: "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1).

More than a decade and a half later, the emotional impact of this episode may have diminished, but I am still vividly aware of the fearful responsiblity given to those of us who teach. A winning personal style, a touch of humour and genuine expressions of care so easily translate into a deep bond of loyalty between students and professors. But join these positive qualities to a life philosophy rooted in what the Pope has labelled the culture of death, and the potential harm to such students is horrible to consider. Generations of ethicists will be produced whose consciences may have been muted by the diabolical teachings of someone under the guise of academic freedom.

But sometimes students are wiser than their professors. After all, Princeton Students Against Infanticide does not appear to enjoy the encouragement of the faculty or administration. For this student-led initiative we can rightly thank God.

In the meantime, academics best fulfil their weighty calling when they are aware of the impact they inevitably have in the lives of their students and are thus careful what they teach them. When they lose sight of this, it's time for them to go into another line of work.

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