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Let’s Build More Happiness, Not Fear, Into the Classroom

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Happy teacher and schoolgirl giving high five during class at school.

It’s February and that means Valentine’s Day. We all know about the love between life partners. But what about love in the workplace? My workplace has been one classroom or another for more than 50 years. The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote that the most secure way to influence other people is to get them to love you, whereas trying to get them to fear you leads to hatred. Fifteen hundred years later, Machiavelli fiercely disagreed: As a ruler, you cannot make anyone love you, he argued, but you can make people fear you.

Early in my career, I tried to get my students to both fear me and love me. I soon realized, however, that both tactics were failing. Some students were not learning what I wanted. That’s because my approach to love and fear rested on a mistake: I couldn’t make anyone fear me or love me. I couldn’t control their feelings at all. The only feelings I could control were my own and not even all of them.

The force an authority uses to try to frighten people into submission is more likely to produce hatred than fear, and people who hate you will resist your influence. Some of my students, frightened by my quizzes, came to dislike philosophy. Tyrants often make a similar mistake. Take Vladimir Putin. He thought he could take control of Ukraine by frightening its people. But he has succeeded only in ratcheting up the Ukrainians’ determination to resist. Tyrants forget that there is such a thing as courage.

We cannot control the feelings of others, but we do have some control over our own. I had sometimes found myself angry at students for failing to grasp basic points in philosophy, points I thought I had made perfectly clear. That sort of rupture between me and my students was something to fear.

How about love? I resolved to teach only what I loved. Not all teachers are so lucky. These days, some politicians are taking away that freedom from teachers at all levels. But we can’t be great teachers without that freedom. Teachers who love what they teach have the most profound influence over their students. Love is contagious. And inspiring.

And my students? I could at least set aside impediments to loving them, and I could offer them such love as they could accept. To do this, I would have to start by banishing fear — my own fear of judgments by my colleagues, along with my fear that students might try to cheat or lie to me. I began to trust my students. I stopped reading letters from doctors attesting to students’ needs. I told the students, simply, that I would believe whatever they told me. And I explained that this was because I trusted them. Love entails trust, and therefore a failure of trust undermines love.

Hard quizzes sometimes scare students, but that does not necessarily lead to better learning. Now, in place of quizzes, I developed challenging open-book group exercises. These were graded as hard as the quizzes, but most students looked forward to them. They enjoyed connecting with one another, and they liked the opportunity to express their own views to one another. As I recognized their growing pleasure in one another and in the subject, I began to like my students better and better. I had found what I wanted — a way to set up my classroom that invited me to love my students.

In this month of Valentine’s Day, let’s try to apply Cicero’s advice tο ourselves. About those we deal with in our work, let’s try to banish fear from our own hearts and instill love in its place.

Paul Woodruff is a professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman and the San Antonio Express News.

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