Why I Teach

[Crossposted from Free Exchange on Campus]

When I was in Peace Corps, I taught farmers the rudiments of using oxen for plowing. I did this at an instruction center in the north of the West African nation of Togo. It was a complicated task: Aside from the actual plowing, the farmers had to learn to 1) use the tools needed for maintaining their plows and other equipment, 2) to house and care for large animals, and 3) how to grow and store appropriate feed. They also needed to learn rudimentary bookkeeping. They were entering into a monetary economy they had rarely experienced—they had to borrow from the government to buy the oxen, the equipment, fertilizer (no matter what you do, cotton is hard on the soil), and even pesticide. They would be embarking on cash-crop farming (as opposed to the primarily subsistence pattern of their past) to pay back the loan.

At first, I saw nothing wrong with this. After all, I was teaching them how to complete specific tasks, each one of which could be of value, especially as it became harder and harder to support a family through traditional farming methods (population growth, deforestation, and desertification were ensuring that). The skills gained, I rationalized, would always stand the farmers in good stead.

By the time my second year started, though, I had withdrawn from all but minimal duties at the center, focusing instead on my secondary project, developing a tree nursery for hedgerows (a reforestation, soil preservation project).

Why? What was wrong with what I had been teaching the farmers?

Well, I had begun to feel I was teaching them into poverty, not out of it. And I did not like that.

The costs of the new ways of farming were so high that the farmers were having to take land away from the crops that fed their families, meaning that they had to start buying food. Which meant that they had to plant even more cotton than they had before. It also meant that they were putting more stress on the land, unable to rotate crops appropriately or let their fields lie fallow ever seventh year. And it placed them at the mercy of market forces well beyond their control. They may have had new skills, but they were facing a poverty that could prove more severe than anything they had previously experienced—a poverty that could (through their debt), eventually, remove them from the land completely. Remember that old Frank Norris story, “A Deal in Wheat”? That’s where these farmers were heading.

What I was seeing brought home to me, more than anything else ever had, the fact that education needs to be more than simply skills acquisition if it is going to be truly effective as a means for moving people out of poverty. There has to be a cultural goal for the education, something that can benefit the entire village, city, or country.

If it is going to be a means for anything at all.

Also, skills, if not providing benefit for the individual locally, lead the skilled to leave. Just look at the migratory patterns today. The very people whose skills seem most able to help their home communities are leaving. They are going to places where the value of their skills has already been established and evidenced through adequate compensation.

The only way I learned about the problems of Togolese farmers was through working with them, through teaching and watching, through talking and listening. I also learned that the only way to be of real help in the developing world is through following the lead of the people I am trying to aid, through then helping build a platform of local support for new skills. That hedgerow project? I started it because one man in the village was already planting hedgerows. He and I talked over how to expand, and he suggested getting his grandsons involved, that I teach them how to handle seedlings.

The project cost very little and, when I returned five years later, the little nursery was still there, though the grandsons were using it for vegetables instead of trees. They had planted the trees, though, and were still doing hedgerows, too—though not so ambitiously. They had, however, gained skill in working with plants that they were continuing to use—and to make money from locally.

By listening rather than simply telling, rather than coming in with my own agenda, my own ideas, I had (at least) done no damage, and may even have accomplished just the littlest bit, allowing skills do develop within a milieu that could support those particular skills. A small step, yes. But it may allow those grandsons to stay in the area and continue to learn and develop rather than, as many of their contemporaries, wandering to the city from lack of opportunity at home.

Soon, not surprisingly, I found I was viewing teaching in a new way: Learn about your students and their environment, then use what you know about them to teach them—not just the skills you have brought in, but the place those skills can have in the community.

This, I liked.

Still, I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore.

When I returned from Africa, I did teach for a bit, but neither high schools nor colleges held much attraction (and I tried both). I tried to transfer what I had learned to the American classroom, but I couldn’t find enthusiasm for what I was doing.

I couldn’t find a real role for me, outside of keeping order and providing evaluation. What I wanted was for the students to take control of their own learning, the thing I had found the only effective way in Togo, leaving me to point them to the appropriate tools and the means for learning to use them.

But I found, back home, that doing that was boring, and I wanted to have fun. Besides, it only really worked for motivated students—just as development projects only work when the motivation precedes the aid worker.

So, I left teaching for most of a decade, only returning to it (and then just part time for the first three years) seven years ago.

When I entered the classroom again, something was different. Though I still wanted to facilitate what my students could do, I found I was trying to do this in ways I had never before considered. Without understanding why or how, I was attempting to motivate my students, not simply facilitate their learning.

Now, this is a task that would not have been appropriate in my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Effective (that is, lasting) motivation needs to come through those invested in the situation. It is something that needs to be done at home, and not for another culture.

As an American, I was (and am) upset by the direction of my country. I want to change that, and the only way I can successfully do so is by motivating others to join me in working to turn this Titanic around. This motivated me to do something other than I had before: Share, and not simply instruct. Share in a way I never could as an outsider in Africa.

That does not mean I now need to (or would want to) indoctrinate my students. Just the opposite.

Because I am invested in the idea of listening to my students and starting where they “are,” I don’t lay out a life course for them, but still do facilitate their learning rather than trying to control it. What I want to do today (and what I had not done before) is share with them the enthusiasm for learning, for exploration, for discovery, that I have developed over a lifetime of wandering and wondering. I want to imbue my students with the optimism I feel—the belief I share with Thoreau that the sun is a morning star, that the day is always unfolding. Then, enthused by possibility, they can take control of their own education, even turning their enthusiasm to personal gain.

And why do I do that?

I love the country I live in and the exploration I am making, and that leads me, like all enthusiasts, to want to share.

And that, ultimately, is why I teach.