In his book Reaching Out, Henri J. M. Nouwen declares that “if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality” (44). He urges Christians to look beyond tea and crumpets to a practice of hospitality that will transform the hostility of the world around us, which makes us strangers to one another and even ourselves, into a welcoming receptivity to others that enables a mutual sharing of inner gifts (43-53).
Furthermore, Nouwen argues that education desperately needs to gain and grow a sense of hospitality: “One of the greatest tragedies of our culture is that millions of young people spend many hours, days, weeks and years listening to lectures, reading books and writing papers with a constantly increasing resistance….Practically every student perceives his education as a long endless row of obligations to be fulfilled” (58-59). As a professor just two years out of my doctoral program, I realize that my approach to teaching and research largely has followed the same pattern of thinking: identifying education, which I have always loved, as obligatory drudgery. My anxiety of finding my place in the workforce, and specifically in the academy, infiltrated my approach to teaching because I learned to be a teacher within a social framework that promotes finding one’s place in the workforce.
I have given serious thought over the past year to how I view the classroom. I confess that, for much of my teaching career, I viewed it as a space more of hostility than hospitality. As the teacher, I was the dispenser of (on good days) knowledge and (on bad days) information, and the students were the receptacles. During this 50 to 70-minute duration of dispensing and receiving, all manner of forces could intrude and impede. The students who fought against these forces were friends; those who accepted or embraced the forces were enemies. Learning was a battlefield, and I was the commander to drag us through it. Casualties were inevitable. Students’ worth was measured by their ability to receive, and mine was measured by my ability to dispense.
Operating from this perspective, I became increasingly alienated, from the students as well as from myself. More and more students were looking like the enemy to me, and I could tell the feeling was mutual. Students were coming in strangers and leaving strangers. What was happening? I was confident that teaching is my vocation—I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was five years old. But I was not at all the teacher I wanted to be, nor did I feel that I was on the way to becoming it.
Last November, as I was struggling through these matters, the Lord reminded me of my passion for hospitality. I began to think about spaces I’ve been in or read about, where people gathered and experienced great intellectual growth: Gertrude Stein’s salon at 21 Rue de Fleurus; Jacques and Raïssa Maritain’s Thomistic circles in 1920s Paris; Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri institutes; the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, Florida; Brooks College at Baylor University. I want to be the host of such a space, to offer hospitality that enables people to develop their creative and intellectual gifts. I aspire to facilitate others in the use of their gifts to do great things. Only recently have I realized—this is what teaching is!
Let’s think about teaching in terms of a tea party. I discovered that I have concentrated too much on the crumpets—whether people eat them with a fork or with their hands, how many crumpets they eat, whether they like crumpets and why. I have concentrated on shaping people to be eaters and makers of crumpets so that they can go out in the world to make and eat crumpets with great proficiency. But why have I even made crumpets in the first place? Why are there people here to eat them? There is more that happens at a tea party than eating crumpets. The host and guest mutually offer themselves—their time, attention, thoughts, emotions. We talk with each other; we make connections; we form community. All of these activities have consequences when we leave the tea party. Don’t get me wrong: crumpets are an important part of a tea party, but if I focus exclusively on the crumpets during the party, I will have missed learning more about my guests, deepening relationships, and stumbling upon new ideas. Even worse, my guests will leave, alienated by their crumpets-obsessed host.
We meet together in a classroom to learn because we are engaged in more than simply dispensing and receiving knowledge. As Henri Nouwen points out, the classroom is a space for hospitality, “a free and fearless space where mental and emotional development take place” (61); it is a space “where [students] can reveal their great human potentials to love, to give, and to create, and where they can find the affirmation that gives them the courage to continue their search without fear” (62). If I want students to abide in my class, I need to show them hospitality: I need to show my students that they are welcome as the people they are, who have something to offer, and that I am a willing recipient. We’ll eat the crumpets, but won’t it be nice to eat them with friends instead of strangers?
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Reaching Out. 1975. London: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.