Being Amateur-Professional Liberal Arts Educators

There’s a lot packed into that title, and it invites consideration of the balancing work topic in my last posting. Other more competent writers and educators can cover the importance of professionalism and the liberal arts, but I wanted to take a little time to reflect on the importance of being an amateur educator. Here are relevant and important points being an amateur educator.

First, the Latin root “amare” means to love. This captures the older notion of amateur as a
“devotee” or “admirer.” Real educators learn to love and to be loved. They devote themselves to the expanding and interconnected subjects that they admire.

Being real is challenging. The Velveteen Rabbit aptly sums up the difficult connection between loving and being real:

“‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'”

Being a real educator who loves is often painful (ditto for parenting!). It requires us to be vulnerable. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis shares the deep insight about how pain, love, and compassion must work together in our lives for us to flourish:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

It’s often painful to realize how little one actually knows, even after years of study, much classroom experience, and overflowing bookshelves. Definitionally, being an amateur is also about “lacking in experience and competence in an art or science.” If one really digs into trying to be a professional and trying to promote liberal arts education, one finds many testimonies about the shortcomings and befuddlement of even the best scholarly educators.

However, such experiences can grow humility. Too often our professional stature as educators comes across as arrogant and alienating. Sharing our foibles, vulnerabilities, and limitations can do much to help our students, colleagues, community members, and ourselves to remember that the heart of learning starts with wonder (as Socrates would say) and not with credentials and accomplishments. Zen mystics would say that this is the importance of beginner’s mind, and Martin Luther would likewise share that “to progress is to begin again” (a great spot in his commentary in Romans.

This summer, I’m thinking about the amateur part of being an educator as focused on how one “engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession.” Rather than just taking classes, I find myself reaching for authors and texts that I just love (even if they’re difficult). Summer is a great time to develop our amateur sensibilities and review and explore “the grace of great things” to be found in good books and good authors.

Some selections on my own amateur learning and review list for this summer include the following items: The Poetry Hour (an app for my smartphone performed poems with choices of readers); Matthew Crawford’s Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road (I finished reading & listening to this, but I have a host of questions, footnotes, and ideas to follow up on.); Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (and other great short works that I often get as both ebooks and audiobooks); assorted articles by James Baldwin (a fascinatingly complex character who has much to consider for our time of racial conflict and identity issues); and a trio of books for midsummer about Shakespeare along with a rereading of King Lear (I’ll likely have much more to post about these, including my own take on “How Shakespeare Can Save Your Life”–with apologies to Rod Dreher.).

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