Is it possible to teach another human being?

Thomas Aquinas was born around 1225 and died in 1274. His feast is celebrated on 28 January. He would have been fascinated by developments in modern technology.

Take artificial intelligence, for example. In speaking about knowledge and truth Aquinas considers all the kinds of minds of which he was aware: the mind of God, the mind of angels, and human minds. He would certainly have added artificial intelligence to that list if it had been around in his time. He would have been full of questions about it and would have offered informed and thoughtful answers.

How people come to know what is true is one of his big concerns and he speaks often about the work of teaching. In fact he asks the most radical question about teaching: is it actually possible to teach another human being? He thinks it is. Not that a teacher can do a student’s learning or understanding for them, but the teacher can help to stimulate the natural processes of knowing and understanding which each person already has.

For Aquinas the teacher has three things to do: present helpful signs, ask good questions, and love the people he or she is teaching.

Signs speak to imagination and for Aquinas the good teacher is one who can puts imagination at the service of understanding. You see this every day in classrooms all over the world. Teachers draw pictures and make diagrams. They scribble and draw. They tell stories and invite their students to do the same. They imagine scenarios, create situations, and present the mind with pictures.

Human beings can handle abstract thinking, mathematics or theology for example, but our minds are a bit stretched when we do that, and it can be painful. Easier for us are the natural and social sciences where we are dealing with what we can touch, see, smell, taste and hear. Then our imaginations and memories are engaged as much as our intellects, and we find it easier to understand what is going on. The good teacher makes good pictures and tells good stories. In this way she or he helps the student grow in knowledge and understanding.

Asking good questions is the second skill of the teacher. This goes all the way back to Socrates, long before Aquinas. Encourage people to ask questions: how else are they to learn? Encourage people to ask radical questions: how else are they to understand things in depth?

Asking questions means entering into a bigger space in our thoughts where we can play with different possibilities. It also means trusting truth. Aquinas himself had this trust very deeply. Truth is strong in itself, he says, and nothing can prevail against it. It means you can be fearless and courageous in searching for the truth.

Asking questions also opens the door to dialogue and puts us in the company of others as we search together. Aquinas asks hundreds of questions throughout his writings.

He never dismisses a question as stupid and he tries to find something good in every answer. He listens carefully to what others have said. He treats people always with great respect. In this he is a powerful role model for teachers.

The third thing a teacher must do is love the people he is trying to teach. Speaking to preachers, a famous Dominican, Vincent McNabb, said ‘if you do not love the people to whom you are preaching you should shut up, go away, and preach to yourself’. We can say the same about teaching.

For Aquinas the greatest of all teachers is Jesus. He is the greatest because he did these three tasks of the teacher better than anybody else in history. He presented the best signs – parables, miracles, stories. He asked the best questions – what are you looking for? What do you want me to do for you? Who do you say that I am? And finally he loved his disciples, his students, and loved them ‘to the end’ – even to the point of giving his life for them.

In fact we see all three things in the Cross. It is the most dramatic sign. It is the most troubling question. It reveals the greatest possible love. Aquinas said he learned everything he knew from meditating on the Cross of Jesus. He is a saint who continues to teach many people today, leading them to Jesus, the greatest of teachers.



Fr Vivian Boland OP is the author of Thomas Aquinas – The Mind in Love




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