Morality of Teaching

Earlier in the week David Hansen, Professor of Philosophy and Education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, came to my college to give a talk on what it means to be a teacher today. I had the honor and pleasure of introducing him and spending some time talking about his work and higher education.

Hansen has an engaging manner. He speaks with a deliberate cadence; he has a quiet power borne of a clear sense of who he is as a person, a teacher, and a man. It is the kind of presence one recognizes with those that have great faith or who have tested themselves repeatedly. He radiates, too, an appreciation of goodness that is not all that common in academia, where we tend to be uncomfortable with discussions of morality.

Morality, however, is a recurring theme in Hansen’s scholarship  He does not shy away from it and his directness in addressing morality both elevates teachers and challenges them to consider why they do what they do. His most widely recognized book, The Call to Teach, is a study of four teachers in inner-city Chicago and their passion, their calling, for teaching. Hansen later wrote Exploring the Moral Heart of Teaching as a way of further exploring the values and creed of teaching.

In his talk, Hansen called on teachers to regularly engage with and question their most powerful pedagogical tool – themselves. He did not equate passion with excellent teaching; nor was talk a celebration of the role and responsibility of the teacher. Instead, he build a network of meaning and values about what it means to teach and why.

Hansen only briefly touched on his recent scholarship on cosmopolitanism, a post-everything approach to openness and growth for teaching and learning that is both transcendent and grounded in the practical. The term cosmopolitanism has a rich history. Derived from a Greek “world citizen” translation, cosmopolitanism has also posited a unifying force bringing all peoples together in one sense of a community. It was linked with Judaism in the early twentieth century and Jewish “cosmopolitan” thinkers were treated as suspect, or even traitorous, because they did not subscribe to an identity bound up in the nation state. Hansen believes that the more one looks across the world at teachers, the more one will find shared values, understandings, and ways of making meaning.

To the skeptics of teaching and to education’s critics, Hansen proffered no snappy comebacks or solutions. He suggested that teachers could shift the tenor of conversations through straightforward demands for better, higher level conversations and language. In this, I think that he is idealistic. Similarly, his request for qualitative assessment does not fully appreciate the intertwining of outcomes based social science into what has become the business of higher education. We have no viable alternative language.

On the whole, however, Professor David Hansen provided aperspective, a space, and a reminder of what is important about teaching and why it matters.


  1. This is an unfortunate post. David Hansen has been widely criticized for trading in platitudes and cliches. He strategically avoids taking positions, a hallmark of an academic mandarin…Disappointed

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