This article first appeared in the February 1992 issue of The Teaching Professor.
When as a college sophomore I first encountered Benedict de Spinoza, I was fascinated by both his philosophy, which emphasizes intellectual freedom and pursuit of virtue, and the fact that by trade or profession he was a grinder of lenses.
I take Spinoza to be the epitome of teaching. A teacher as a discipline to peddle or “profess.” A teacher brings the student into the circle of knowledge. It is an act of initiation. As teachers our humble but critically important duty is to grind lenses. If this becomes a daily grind, so be it, for it is noble work.
The lens of history enables us to view the past, the present, and—as through trifocals—the future. Through the lens of science we observe the nature and order of the physical universe. Not only is it the task of a teacher to craft and pass along the master lens of a certain discipline, but the vocation of a scholar-teacher also involves grinding numerous lesser lenses through which the student can come to see, in the sense of “understand” or “discover,” and grasp the meaning of details and facts, concepts, principles, and ideas.
The lensmaking aspect of our trade has to do with pedagogy. In the classroom, lab, and studio, we strive to improve the vision of our students. We seek to expand their horizons and enable them to appreciate multiple perspectives, to apprehend the scale of human achievements, to discern order and direction. To see things whole is no easy matter.
The lens we prescribe may be an article on reserve in the library, a chapter in the course textbook, a novel included in the syllabus. Often an apt metaphor or analogy developed in a lecture or tossed out impromptu in a class discussion serves as a lens. An analysis of an episode or process, a description of a foreign custom or governmental structure, a clay-making project, a term paper, a lab experiment, an exam, a conference out of class to help a student in difficulty, an explanation of a mathematical formula in preparation for solving a set of assigned problems—the list could continue.
Spinoza never said the quest would be easy. He only argued that the challenge of reaching for a higher order of reasoning was one that would define our essential humanity and lead ultimately to a vision of wholeness.
Poet Robert Frost contended that “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” I would add, one could do no better than be a lensmaker like Spinoza. The teacher who is a skillful lensmaker is able to replace ignorance, faulty vision, and dependency upon triviality with knowledge that brings us closer to matters that really count and that have enduring meaning and value for our lives. This is the freedom and power made possible through excellence in teaching in the liberal arts tradition.
Daniel E. Van Tassel, PhD, taught English at Muskingum University from 1981 until his retirement in 2003.