Philosophers, Plumbers, & the Sacred Work of Teaching

On finding purpose and meaning in education

Melissa Gibson
Jun 7 · 7 min read

When I was 12, I wanted to be a French journalist. I loved French, and I loved writing, and voilà: French journalist. Now, no one in my family spoke any language other than English, and no one in my family was a writer or any other kind of knowledge worker, so I constructed this career aspiration all on my own. Before this, I had wanted to be a “lawyer who wears a suit,” thanks to the 80s television show L.A. Law, and also a fashion designer, inspired in no small part by the collection of clothes my Barbies wore. Those eventually fell by the wayside, as did my dreams of French journalism; by the time I headed to college, I was sure I was going to be a marine biologist (or, maybe, a chorus member in Broadway musicals). Those, too, went the way of French journalism and fashion design and law, and when it was time to graduate college, despite the lure of internet start-ups and my uncle’s admonitions to do something practical like accounting, I ended up pursuing the most familiar path I knew: teaching. And now, here I am, twenty years later, teaching and writing and researching and traveling—and fumbling about in a second language whenever I’m given the chance.

I think about my own career trajectory a lot when I am prodding students to consider the purpose of education, as we’ve been doing in Week Two of our month in Peru. Typically, students’ go-to answer is about education for work, for jobs, for the future. I can’t help but wonder, though, what that would have looked like for seven-year-old, twelve-year-old, or twenty-year-old me, trying to figure out my way in the world. Would I have been pigeon-holed by early interests—or by the working-class background of my family? Would I have been able to explore my obsession with cetaceans, and then theoretical physics, and also Czech literature and critical theory and sociology? Or would a focus on careers have helped me find something rather than fall into something? All I know is that the trite, common-sense idea of education-for-employment feels too narrow and constricting for the person I was and the person I’ve become. And while being economically sufficient is important, it’s not at the heart of what it means to be human. And education, ultimately, is a fundamentally human—and humanizing—endeavor.

We opened our second week here in Lima with philosophical readings on the aims of education. Philosopher Harry Brighouse describes what he considers to be the foundational aims goals of education: autonomy, contributory effectiveness, flourishing, democratic competence, and cooperative capacity. We wrestled with these five aims, undoubtedly an incomplete set, as we encountered unequal social contexts, from luxurious private schools to one-room after-school programs. What could it possibly mean to teach toward self-actualization when students need food, shelter, and a protection from domestic violence? Is a focus on flourishing in a privileged setting simply another way to magnify and reinforce that privilege? And if we want to cultivate democratic commitments, such as a spirit of activism, is it enough to build relationships across difference? Or do we need to consider a more radical pedagogy of social change?

We haven’t answered these questions. In fact, at the end of our second week, I think my students were more perplexed than anything. But across the diverse contexts we’ve been welcomed into in Lima, I wanted them to see that every educator has an idea about what they are educating for, and while they might not articulate it explicitly, they articulate it implicitly in how they teach and interact with their students.

For me, I always come back to the notion of education as a nursery for human flourishing and all the multitudes that such an idea contains. I was lucky: I had teachers—inside my schools and inside my family—who believed that our highest calling was to be curious, exploratory, adventurous, creative, compassionate, and fulfilled. I had teachers who encouraged me to flourish, in whatever winding path of life that might be. I’ve come to understand that my own teachers believed in paideia, a form of education distinct from vocational training that instead cultivated the citizens’ souls so that they may be the fullest contributors to their communities. Vocational training is important; we all must eat and have a roof over our heads. But even more critical is learning to live with beauty, wisdom, and the common good.

I sometimes wonder if, given different teachers or family emphases, might I have chosen a career better suited to my unique talents and challenges? You might think of me like an ADHD philosopher…so maybe I should have been a bartender? Or an ER doctor? Or a physical therapist? Or a stage manager? I’m not any of those things, though; I’m a teacher. From my academic work, I know that was a logical choice for a first-generation college student. My grandfather made sure I understood that going to college freed me from the kind of manual labor that took a physical toll on one’s body, from the finger he was missing from a wayward tool-and-die machine or the weekends he lost zoning out over Old Milwaukee and Ritz crackers. I wasn’t going to follow that path, but no one in my family had gone to college. While I’d been told the sky was the limit, I also knew that ultimately I had to work, and teaching was work I knew from a life spent in schools. Everything else I dreamed about just didn’t seem possible, and the thought of trying to make a life by following a completely unknown path filled me with anxiety. The unknown became the impossible. And so, I’m a teacher.

But that’s not the whole story. I’m also a teacher because, as bell hooks reminds us, teaching is sacred work, not merely sharing information but sharing in the “intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.” My own teachers accompanied me (there’s that word again!) through explorations and questions and meaning making; my own teachers encouraged my dreams and wonderings and imaginative futures; my own teachers gave me more books to add to my piles, spent hours talking ideas with me, and encouraged me to write write write. They nourished my soul, and because of them, this is the work that I do. And how degrading it feels to reduce that sacred work down to job training or employability.

Let me end by sharing one of my favorite stories, told by journalist Bill Moyers. He had been producing a series of pieces on ideas that changed the world, and in response to a particular episode, he received a letter from a group of listeners:

“I am writing on behalf of a group of construction workers (mostly, believe it or not, plumbers!) who have finally found a teacher worth listening to. While we cannot all agree whether or not we would hire you as an apprentice, we can all agree that we would love to listen to you during our lunch breaks…We never knew a world of ideas existed. The study of ideas has completely turned around our impression of education. We only wish we had not wasted 25–35 years in the process. But we do have you to thank for the next 35–40 years that we have before us to study and implement the great ideas into our lives and into the lives of our communities…We are certain that the praise of a few plumbers could hardly compare with the notoriety that you deserve from distinguished colleagues but we salute you just the same. One last thought — we may be plumbers during the day, but at lunch time and at night and on the weekends, we are Philosophers at Large.”

My wish for all the students I work with — at Marquette and in Milwaukee, here in Lima at private schools and in pueblos jovenes—is that they, too, get to know the world of ideas; that they, too, have teachers who see their work as sacred and who accompany their students on their own journeys of fulfillment and self-actualization; and that they, too, get to be an efficacious and contributing member of their community in ways more powerful than mere economics.

Whether we are plumbers or teachers, fashion designers or French journalists, may we all get to be Philosophers at Large.

Marquette Meets Peru

Reflections on our month studying diverse educational settings in Peru, written by teacher education students from Marquette University.

Melissa Gibson

Written by

Teacher. Writer. Wanderer. Scholar. Sharing my students with the world.

Marquette Meets Peru

Reflections on our month studying diverse educational settings in Peru, written by teacher education students from Marquette University.