If you hear the tables shaking in a classroom, it might be an earthquake, but it also might just be Dr. Phillip Cary pounding the table in excitement. After all, he considers philosophy— and teaching in general— something worth getting excited about. “The great gift [of teaching] is the privilege of being an assistant to the process of someone becoming themselves,” Dr. Cary told me in an interview. “And this ought to be, should be, a process of someone becoming themselves.”
His own journey towards a career in education was a process of discovering himself as well; when he was in graduate school, Dr. Cary explained that “I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write about deep issues. It didn’t occur to me that I’d need to teach to make money with a PhD in Philosophy.” With a laugh, he admitted that this was terribly naive. “I’d never let any of my students be that naive now,” he added. But teaching was not simply a way for him to make money; in Dr. Cary’s own words, “teaching was the most natural thing in the world.”
He first began teaching as a teacher’s assistant in graduate school and found that it came easily to him, though he said he has no idea why. “I had colleagues who were terrified of teaching, and that was just never my problem,” Dr. Cary stated. Instead, he found teaching to be “a kind of gift that dropped into my life from the Giver of all good gifts.”
For the professor, teaching is an individualized experience. He explained that the fundamental relationship between teacher and student is the bond between master and apprentice: the teacher models what good work looks like for the student and corrects and encourages the apprentice in his or her own work. But Dr. Cary also stressed that teaching can’t simply be one-directional. “You can’t teach well if you don’t listen,” he pointed out.
He also highlighted the importance of recognizing the questions a student has, sometimes even before the student can express them. In this way, Dr. Cary draws from the teachers in classic literature; both Virgil and Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy often answer questions the pilgrim hasn’t yet given voice to. And like Dante, many students are afraid to ask their questions because they often think it’s a stupid question, but Dr. Cary shakes his head at that idea. He’s found that many students who preface their remarks with “this is probably a stupid question” end up asking some of the most fundamental questions. He said that many of these students often must say to themselves, “This is a question I’m going to have to live with for a while.”
“What’s some advice you have for both teachers (or people who want to teach) and students?” I asked Dr. Cary towards the end of the interview, and he thought about the question for a moment. For teachers, he said to be learners. “Life as a learner is essential to life as a teacher,” he told me. He gave me the example of a first grade teacher. Their primary job is to teach children how to read, and so they really must love reading.
As for students, Dr. Cary prefaced his advice with a story: “I had to give advice once to a young man who loved reading and learning, but he thought it was a luxury. He felt guilty for it!” But, Dr. Cary explained, this isn’t at all how he thinks students should feel about learning. “When you become a good learner, you become a different kind of person, and that makes you valuable in a certain kind of way.” He added that education isn’t the only way to be valuable, but it provides one very specific way to do so. “The world needs lawyers, for example,” he told me, “and for that, you need to be good at studying.” For Dr. Cary, both teaching and learning are good gifts, and we are allowed to love them. “And that’s good news!” he concluded with a smile.