A Portrait of the Teacher as Friend and Artist


The following is a reflection on the possibility of teaching by example, and especially as the idea of teaching by example is developed in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. My thesis is that Rousseau created a literary version of himself in his writings as an embodiment of his philosophy, rather in the same way and with the same purpose that Plato created a version of Socrates.This figure of Rousseau—a sort of philosophical portrait of the man of nature—is represented as an example for us to follow.This would appear to have been dangerous and destabilizing work, given the mental distress that it caused Rousseau in striving to live up to his fictional self. Rousseau’s own ideas on the nature of teaching by example are presented in a discussion of the section in ‘Emile’ which Rousseau takes from an incident in his own life—the story of his meeting with a young Savoyard priest who befriended him and influenced him through the power of his example.

Keywords: philosophical portraiture, Rousseau, teaching


Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of a select group of philosophers who, in addition to giving us a philosophy, present us with a portrait of a person who is the embodiment of that philosophy—the person in whom the principles and values of the philosophy are made to come to life. It is the figure of Rousseau himself in whom Rousseau makes his philosophy manifest; or to be more exact, a representation of Rousseau—a hypothetical Jean-Jacques who is tutor to the imaginary Emile. ‘I have hence chosen’, proclaims Rousseau in Book I of Emile,1 ‘to give myself an imaginary pupil, to hypothesize that I have the age, health, kinds of knowledge, and all the talent suitable for working at his education’ (E. 50). Rousseau is one of the most autobiographical of philosophers, and the figure of Jean-Jacques is prominent in many of his other writings such as The Confessions, the Dialogues, and Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Rousseau’s idealization of himself as an incarnation of the man of nature—an image that he, somewhat naively, hoped to project of himself—was one that his published works and letters often sought desperately to defend. In Emile, he offers a description of this version of himself as

‘neither a scholar, nor a philosopher, but a simple man, a friend of truth, without party, without system; a solitary who living little among men, has less occasion to contract their prejudices and more time to reflect on what strikes him when he has commerce with them’ (E. 110). Rousseau aimed to establish a reputation as a person uniquely suited to be ‘humanity’s teacher’ (Grimsley, 1969, p. 260)—that by striving to follow nature in his own life, he could project himself as a model, as a man who was ‘certified’ to teach others without the debasing effects that would normally attend an education at the hands of man.

In creating a portrait of Jean-Jacques as the embodiment of his philosophy, Rousseau is following a tradition of philosophical portraiture that has its origins in Plato’s portrayal of Socrates as the exemplary practitioner of Platonic idealism, particularly as it is represented in the middle dialogues, which deal with the theory of forms, recollection, and the immortality of the soul (Vlastos, 1991). George Steiner (2003) refers to the figure of Socrates in these dialogues as a ‘poetic-philosophic construct’, and Plato as a poet-dramatist (p. 22). Like Plato’s Socrates, Rousseau’s Jean-Jacques can also be viewed as a ‘poetic-philosophic construct’—a figure designed to teach us how to lead our lives with reference to one representative and heroic example.They are ‘practitioners of the art of living’, to use Alexander Nehamas’ (1998) apt phrase. And though their philosophies present quite different, almost opposing conceptions of the relationship of human beings to the world, Plato and Rousseau are kindred spirits in seeking to teach us through the forceful example of one, exemplary, life. But, as I hope to show, these portraits offer more than mere examples of how to live; they also teach us something about how to teach. Thus, to adapt Nehamas’ phrase, Socrates and Jean-Jacques can also be understood as ‘practitioners of the art of teaching.’

2. What Does It Mean to Teach by Example?

Can we teach by example? We undoubtedly learn from the example of others, but this is not the same thing as teaching by example, unless we consider teaching by example in the achievement sense in which it is attributed retrospectively to someone’s actions in spite of their intentions (Ryle, 1949, p. 149). Learning from example is a pervasive phenomenon—a fact of our social world. This is the sense that Locke (1989) gives to the power of example in his advice to parents: ‘Having under consideration how great the influence of company is, and how prone we are all, especially children, to imitation … you must do nothing before him, which you would not have him imitate’ (p. 133). Good and bad examples—of people, actions, and behaviour—abound. But what we learn from these examples is not simply a matter of mimicry but a complex drama that engages the learner and exemplar in interactive processes of thought, action, and relationship.

Obviously, teaching by example is a much less commonplace phenomenon than learning from example. But just as obviously there are cases in which a person makes a deliberate effort to teach by example. Many instances exist in practice: the officer who wants to set an example of courage to the soldiers in his command, the boss who wants her employees to adopt her good work practices, the teacher who wants to model inquiry to her students. How can this be done properly rather than poorly? Proclaiming oneself

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© 2010 The Author Educational Philosophy and Theory © 2010 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia

as an example to be followed, or requiring others to ‘do as I do’, is unlikely to be a convincing tactic. A better approach would be to make a deliberate effort to enhance the conditions and contexts that promote learning from example by establishing, say, an appropriate connection with the student.

What do we exemplify when we teach by example? Sometimes we offer examples of how to perform some kind of action—operating a lathe, pronouncing a word correctly, or swinging a golf club. At other times we set examples that involve more than just showing someone how to do something. Namely, we offer our whole selves as the example. In this second case, teaching by example embraces aspects of character, skill, manner, and style—of showing someone how to be a certain kind of person (Moran, 1997). This can be made clearer by distinguishing between teaching by using examples drawn from one’s own practice and teaching by setting an example. A difference of scale is apparent between example giving and example setting. In the former sense, human actions are taken singly, as models to be imitated or reproduced; in the latter sense, as representations of a type of life.

Teaching someone to be something is the paradigm case of teaching by example. It is devoted to the large gesture, the business of showing others how to be a good practitioner or a good person. Teaching by using examples from our own practice, however, may be a part of teaching by example, though the reverse is not the case. We may teach others by our example to be a good employee, a skilful painter, or a certain kind of philosopher or person. Example setting requires that we possess essential virtues, dispositions, and attitudes, as well as particular skills, and that others are inclined to follow the model we set, though they need not follow our example exactly in order to learn from our example.

What is the relationship between these two forms of example setting? Let’s suppose that I am an exemplary plumber. In what does this consist? Surely, it lies in more than the sum of my plumbing skills, but in certain dispositions of work—my high standards of professionalism, my willingness to work long hours, my honesty, and so on. An appren- tice can learn how to perform individual skills by imitating my example, but the total package is something that involves more than can be merely copied. There are matters here of style as well a substance, of manner as well as matter. Fenstermacher (1999) suggests a difference in the ways that we learn from manner as opposed to matter. Manner is not subject to method—it is caught rather than taught. It is learned by imitation and not by the application of any conscious pedagogy.

The manner of one who possesses these traits of character is learned by modeling, by being around persons who are like this, and by being encouraged to imitate these persons and adapt your actions to the demands of these traits. (p. 47)

I want to argue that there is a good deal more to teaching by setting an example and learning from that example than Fenstermacher suggests. First, I wish to challenge the idea that we learn from example by simple imitation. Secondly, I wish to show that teaching by example involves a degree of pedagogic artifice. And finally, I wish to show that this process is deeply connected with the development of a special bond or rela- tionship between the teacher and pupil.

510 Hunter McEwan

© 2010 The Author Educational Philosophy and Theory © 2010 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia

More than Mere Imitation

Teaching by setting an example is concerned with the moral aspects of teaching, with passing on what is good and bad in the conduct of life or a way of life. Of course, setting oneself or someone else up as an example is not a guaranteed method of achieving ones ends, and to take an extreme case, we often learn from someone’s example exactly the opposite of what they intended to teach. The relationship between teaching and learning by example and learning from example is a contingent one. Take the case of the punctual father who wishes to teach his children the virtue of being on time. Unfortunately, his attention to the details of his own timekeeping become so oppressive to his children that they learn to hate punctuality and associate it with obsessive behaviour and rigidity of mind. No matter how eager a student is to imitate the teacher, a possibility always exists that what they learn from the teacher’s example is quite different from what the teacher intended. Student teachers often observe that they have learned how not to teach from the bad example that a teacher has set. And even when we strive to learn from someone’s example, we are not required to follow it in every respect. Gandhi’s example is not one that we are all inclined to follow exactly. Nevertheless, his moral example is one that has had an immense impact on how we think about how to live in peace with each other.

Intention and Teaching by Example

Teaching by example can be a very powerful way to teach. But what is involved in teaching by example? What does it demand of the teacher and from the learner? Gabriel Moran (1997) views teaching by example as confuting the idea promoted by many analytic philosophers that teaching can be defined as the intention to bring about learning. He calls it a great paradox of human life that ‘not only is intention not the essence of teaching, but some of the most important teaching can only occur when it is not intended’ (p. 51). Moran’s point is that by claiming we have been taught by example is really another way of saying that we have learned from someone’s example, whether it was intended by the teacher or not. Most role models don’t think about being role models, they just get on with their jobs. Nor do they give much thought to what we might call pedagogic technique. If they are taken as someone’s model, then so be it. In Moran’s words: ‘The wise, talented, disciplined, accomplished person is aware that others will be inspired by his or her life. What any individual on any occasion may be inspired to do is not up to the teacher to determine’ (p. 51).

This observation is, I think, correct; but only up to a point. We often deplore the huge, disproportionately negative influence that rock stars, movie stars, and other celebrities have on young people; many of whom, though not all, are noticeably indifferent to the impact they do have. There’s usually not much pedagogy in the business of being a role model. It appears one is chosen for the task by one’s admirers rather than by appointing oneself to the role. However, the idea of teaching by example has a more extensive range and history than Moran suggests. Some people do make a deliberate effort to teach by example. In addition, literary portraits are often created as examples with a definite didactic intent. Novels, plays, biographies, and movies are full of examples of model teachers. Perhaps the most exalted examples are the great originators of the world’s religions Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, and Jesus—those ‘paradigmatic individuals’,

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as Karl Jaspers (1962) refers to them, whose lives are models of their influential teach- ings. What teaching by example achieves in such special cases is more than just a message, but that the lives of these individuals, too, are to be taken as illustrative of how to lead one’s life. Thus, they set an example of living life heroically in ways that are consistent with the principles they teach.

Model teachers need not be perfect. Literature offers many glorious instances in which a life is presented to us as exemplary, yet made more human by the addition of a few flaws and human failings. Why else do we read autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, histo- ries, profiles, confessions, diaries, and other life stories? Not just to learn from others’ example but to learn more about the human condition. ‘I would prefer to begin the study of the human heart with the reading of the lives of individuals’, says Rousseau, who, like Montaigne, chooses Plutarch’s Lives for the lessons its examples teach and for the insights they offer into what makes us and moves us.The universe of teaching by example is laden with celebrated models of the powerful, good, wise, decent, and true. On the opposite scale examples of the good are balanced by many examples to be avoided. The latter often make more gripping reading, and in their way offer lessons that are just as edifying. A pupil ‘must use what he can get, take what a man has to sell and see that nothing goes wasted: even other people’s stupidity and weakness serve to instruct him’, observes Montaigne (1987). ‘By noting each man’s endowments and habits, there will be engendered in him a desire for the good ones and a contempt for the bad’ (p. 175). Somewhere in between the two extremes of good and bad models, we find the example of ordinary people, flawed, perhaps, but dealing honestly with their weaknesses and openly with their errors. As Herbert Kohl (1967) writes: ‘It is the teacher’s struggle to be moral that excites his pupils; it is his honesty, not rightness, that moves children’ (p. 26).

Teaching by example and learning from example occur within the context of specific communities—as Aristotle discusses in the Ethics, we learn to be virtuous by growing up in a virtuous community (1953, p. 56). If so, what are the community processes that come into play when someone teaches by setting an example and someone else learns from that example? Surely it involves a bit more than hoping that something will rub off? How one learns one’s moral lessons and what one learns may depend largely on the nature of the particular community in which one grows to maturity. In some traditional communities, the kinds of examples that one can set may be strictly limited, and powerful social forces will come into play that make it difficult to rebel and encourage conformity to norms of conduct. But whatever the community the idea of teaching by example acts as a powerful tool of socialization.

Thus, teaching by example and learning from example operate routinely in a variety of social contexts and cultural settings. By being brought up in a certain culture, by being guided in our actions by informed adults and older peers, by learning to do what they do by doing as they do, we become acculturated or socialized in the ways of the group. However, we would be missing an important aspect of learning from example if we were to associate it exclusively with processes of acculturation. Those who teach by example often challenge the accepted standards of their culture or social group. Perhaps we should distinguish teaching by example as a form of habituation in which conformity to the standards of the group are emphasized versus teaching by example as a form of dissent, as teaching that challenges the status quo. Socrates, for example, is a notable

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