Teaching’s Habitual Vision of Greatness

One day in 1965, John Steinbeck sat at an outdoor cafe in San Francisco with Howard Gossage, a friend in the advertising business. He said, “Yesterday in Muir Woods, Charlie lifted his leg on a tree that was fifty feet across, a hundred feet high, and a thousand years old. What’s left in life for that dog after that supreme moment?”

Gossage was quiet for a moment, then he said in his slight stutter, “W-w-well, he could always t-t-teach.”

At this time of the year when school has resumed, half the people I know are talking about teaching and teachers. Some friends are themselves teachers and another large segment are the students, everything from pre-K to post-doctoral. Some are thrilled to be back in school, others feel they have been sentenced to Angola for another nine months. That period is ideally suited to bring forth new life in other realms, however in the classroom nothing is guaranteed.

It can be time well invested, life-changing even, or it can be a prison-sentence.

As a lifelong student with two full decades in classroom instruction and the rest in the laboratory of life, learning and teaching have been two of my most enjoyable pursuits.

In fact, I’m signing on to teach a couple of classes at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2010, one in worship leadership and the other in interpersonal relations, both skills absolutely required in those who would shepherd the Lord’s flocks. Both subjects are dear to my heart. Both classes will be shared with another professor–a real one, I’m tempted to say–to give the students two perspectives and, since the classes are several hours long, to give the teachers some rest.

I’m excited. But I’ve done this before, actually–taught seminary students–and know that it’s real work.

If you think being a student is hard, and my grandchildren do, the teacher’s assignment is far more difficult.

No one lives by faith to the extent teachers do. If they judged the value of their work and the effect of their teaching by what they see sitting before them in the classroom, many would slip quietly into the faculty lounge and slit their throats.

I remember my first semester in seminary. That would be mid-1964. My Old Testament professor was George Harrison, a Kentuckian called by God to teach preacher boys (and a few “girls,” I might add, but not nearly as many as are in seminary today) and who gave the better part of his life to the task. He was rumored to be difficult. That’s why I picked his class; I wanted the best.

And I got it.

I took copious notes. (You never see “copious” used with any noun other than “notes.” Everyone takes “copious notes.” I looked it up; it means “full,” “unlimited.”) I wrote fast and furiously. I listened and scribbled. I learned, I laughed, and enjoyed myself heartily. Then I looked around the classroom.

I was one of the few who was savoring that class. “What is wrong with these people?” I wondered. Some were sleeping, a few were wishing they could sleep, and others were working out something for other classes. Only a half-dozen were hanging onto every insight falling from Dr. Harrison’s lips.

Looking back nearly a half-century later, I wonder how he kept from being discouraged. Had this outstanding professor judged his work by the reaction he was receiving from the students that day, he would have deemed himself a failure and gone into another line of work. Thank God, he didn’t.

A teacher/professor works by the faith that what he/she is doing is valuable, that some in the classroom are listening, that something positive deep inside the minds and hearts of their tutors is happening, and that fruit will be born from these saplings in some distant future.

What a teacher must never do is assess his/her success by what they see before them.

So how does an instructor decide if what he’s doing is working? Every teacher will answer in his own way. For me, the answer is found only in his own soul.

A teacher will know.

It’s like a pastor in the pulpit, who is of course also a teacher. If he judges the worth of his ministry and the success of his work by the look on people’s faces and the response at the invitation time, he will make two mistakes. One, he will overlook the much deeper, more abiding work of the Holy Spirit which often bears His best fruit in months or years and not minutes.

And two, he will find himself going for gimmicks and quick-fixes to achieve those immediate results (facial feedback and people at the altar).

Both are mistakes.

Decades ago, Alfred North Whitehead observed, “Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.” That, I submit, is a valuable clue for the student as well as the teacher.

The disciple of Jesus Christ is blessed by a vision of greatness in our wonderful Lord. We say to young believers, “Keep your eyes on Jesus.” The psalmist testified, “Thy gentleness has made me great” (Psalm 18:35). That’s the plan; that’s how it works.

Now, if he/she is wise, new believers will surround themselves with men and women of superior quality and devotion and balance as a part of that vision. And that’s how their inner life–what Whitehead called their “moral education”–develops well. (This is why it’s so critical that a young disciple get into a church of solid, growing, mature believers. They are his role models.)

Teachers are sent to be part of the “habitual vision of greatness” for the students. It is enough for the student to be like the teacher, Jesus said (Matthew 10:25). That’s how God has set up this life..

Wayne VanHorn is a professor. So is Randall O’Brien. So am I, although not in the official life-career way as these two brothers. The three of us are among that large group of grateful devotees of George Harrison, our Old Testament and Hebrew professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. But we are not “the three musketeers,” as the saying goes. Every time I pay tribute to Dr. Harrison on these pages, preachers from every direction chime in with a “me, too.”

Many of them cannot tell you a thing they remember from George’s classes. That’s all right because Dr. Harrison cannot remember them being in his classes.

That’s par for the course, and perfectly all right. The object of teaching is not to create memories but to build minds and lives and ministries.

Two tiny tidbits from my notes of that first term with Professor Harrison stand out in memory. If you know me, even if only from these pages, they will tell you a great deal of why I’m the way I am.

In class, we were discussing Numbers 22 where Balaam’s ass (donkey) spoke. Professor Harrison said, “Dr. Eddleman (his seminary professor and our seminary president at the time) used to wonder what language the donkey spoke in. He decided it was either He-BRAY-ic (Hebraic) or ASSyrian.”

On the subject of David and Abigail in I Samuel 25, Harrison commented on how this wife of Nabal had said to him in frustration, “Nabal is thy name and folly is thy game!” (Which is almost precisely what she said to him, if you’ll check it out.) It struck me as hilarious.

Word play, finding the little twist in a well-known story, giving a humorous aside in a lesson–I treasured that as a young adult and that’s how I have preached and taught all these years. I write that way.

Dr. Harrison once called me. “I have an idea for a cartoon.” (I told you he was not the typical professor. No other instructor ever called me with a cartoon idea!) “When Jonah was coughed up on the seashore, someone asked if he was hurt. He says, ‘No, my injuries are strictly super-FISH-ul.'”

Ya gotta love it.

On a personal note, I do not wait with baited breath (whatever that means) for the raves our readers will leave in the comments section of this website. I enjoy them obviously, but often appreciate just as much a word of criticism which was on target and proved helpful.

But I don’t do it for either. No teacher labors just for the accolades. The praises that count will not be coming anytime soon. In many cases, decades will pass before the student realizes the value of what he/she learned that day.

But far more likely, they never will. The good students will have learned the material, then gone on to construct other lessons on top of it, insights that build on what you gave them. But they will never go back and disassemble the bricks of their knowledge to identify the source of each.

You didn’t do that and neither will they.

No teacher judges the worth of a career by the thank-you notes received in later years. Those will be few and far between, although welcomed.

A teacher works on faith.

When Dr. Samuel Johnson began volume two of his “Dictionary,” he wrote a prayer in the preface, one we find appropriate for a teacher at the start of a new year of classroom work.

“O God, who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labour, and in the whole task of my present state; that when I shall render up, at the last day, an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

If you can read this, thank a teacher.

3 thoughts on “Teaching’s Habitual Vision of Greatness

  1. It’s “bated”–according to Merriam Webster it’s from middle English, short for “abaten” (to abate). It means “to reduce the force or intensity of, to restrain, to deduct.” So “bated breath”, means “restrained breath” rather than the aroma of a worm & cricket breakfast!

    Gotta love the English language . . .

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