Skip to Content

Maître à penser in the history classroom

Posted by Chris Pedersen
1 October 2015 - 4:17pm

To understand the history teacher, it is important to account for the dynamic, inheritable, tradition upon which the educative role of the teacher is predicated. My aim is not an explication of the teacher’s traditionary role in education; nor will I critique this tradition. Rather, I will destroy these traditions in a positive manner.  Heidegger states that destruction "is not a break with history, no repudiation of history, but is an appropriation [Aneignung] and transformation [Verwandlung] of what has been handed down to us…Destruction means—to open our ears, to make ourselves free for what speaks to us in tradition.” (Heidegger, p. 71–73 in Gallagher, p. 86). How can we appropriate and transform the traditional role of the history teacher?

Familiarly, history teacher is synonymous with the designated vault of information. However, the history teacher—need not, indeed should not, be this vault, holding historical content locked away from the student, accessible only when the teacher deems it appropriate. Rather, the teacher should embrace existence as a maître à penser (often translated as master of thinking). Maître à penser, a French term, has no direct translation in English.  It describes the teacher as a mentor, while at the same time as a master of thought. A mentor listens, converses, and cares with and about the student. A master of thought is committed to the activity of intellectual labour itself. In history education, this would be the intellectual labour of doing history—often referred to as historical thinking. The history teacher as master of thought presents their labour to students rather than locking it away. In other words, the teacher, reveals their ignorance and thinks alongside students

A master of thinking does not transmit knowledge to another. Humility is required. Humility before the text and before the student. A maître à penser is untouched by aspirations of notoriety; they forever remain a student as well as a teacher (Chinnery, 2010). Masters don’t design lessons or lectures to show that they have figured everything out; instead, a lesson  displays a way of thinking and demonstrates that the teacher is still a student of thought, along with their students (Chinnery, 2010). Therefore, teaching does not result in stultification which is the transmission of knowledge to students and subsequent verification that the student has satisfactorily understood and repeated what is taught. A maître à penser encompasses a mastery of content and the expectations of the same in students (without dogmatic explication). The mastery of history is not the memorization of facts, or an understanding of historical thinking; it is engagement in a conversation about the subject of history.

I now want to discuss the role of the teacher in light of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s moderate hermeneutics. Often, the “authority of the teacher in the classroom, for instance, rests, not on fear, if learning is to genuinely take place, but on the reasonableness of that which is taught” (Gallagher, 1992, p. 96). The fear of assessment, discipline, etc. does not drive the classroom. Rather, the subject matter of the classroom, that which is between the teacher and the student (or other participants in the dialogue that is education) is responsible for driving learning forward. This forward movement is not a progression from unknown to known. Rather, it is a movement from one question to another; a movement that defines the finite understanding of man (Gadamer, 1989). An understanding of this finitude brings forward questions which control the conversation of the classroom, resulting in genuine understanding.

The teacher, an active player in the dialogue of the classroom—a dialogue centered on the subject matter of history—asks questions to begin conversations or works to further conversation. The teacher must not end conversation with dogmatic statements. The teacher can do this through various pedagogical means (not excluding lecture, if it is not based on fear). The teacher engages the students in the subject matter through questioning and answering. Questions survive and reproduce in the classroom all the while lead to understanding. The teacher does not facilitate student learning, does not dictate the dogmatic curricular structures, and does not maintain control through fear. The teacher recognizes their own ignorance, asks questions of the student and falls into conversation. Understanding of subject matter is reached through conversation between student and teacher. Both parties are equal and both are capable minds (Rancière, 1991). History, as an unobservable and constructed entity, is a subject matter in education that lends itself to conversation. The teacher in this conversation must be a maître à penser or, as moderate hermeneutics says, must be a player in the conversation that is the history classroom.


Works cited:

Chinnery, Ann. "Encountering the Philosopher as Teacher: The Pedagogical Postures of Emmanuel Levinas." Teaching and Teacher Education 26 (2010): 1704-09.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and Method (Second, Revised ed.) (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.). London: Continuum Publishing Group.

Gallagher, Shaun. (1992). Hermeneutics and Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Heidegger, Martin. What is Philosophy? [1995 lecture], trans. William Kluback and Jean T. Wilde (New York: Twayne, 1958), p. 71–73. in Gallagher, Shaun. (1992). Hermeneutics and Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Ruitenberg, C. W. “Hospitable Gestures in the University Lecture: Analysing Derrida’s Pedagogy.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 48, no. 1 (2014): 149–164.