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A Really Thoughtful Gift

David Hansen, Philosophy & Education professor, creates a scholarship for his students.

This past fall, when David Hansen created the Lyle Louis Fellowship Endowed Fund for Teachers College students pursuing a degree in Philosophy & Education, he was, first and foremost, paying tribute to “two people who have helped me pursue a life of teaching, research, writing and exercising leader­ship.”

As Hansen – TC’s John L & Sue Ann Weinberg Professor in the Historical & Philosophical Foundations of Education – tells it, his father, Lyle Hansen, was a professor who later worked abroad for the Ford Foundation: “My upbringing in Nige­ria and Pakistan helped shape my interest in a cosmopol­itan outlook on the human condition.” His father-in-law, Louis Fuchs, flew for the U.S. Naval Air Corps during World War II and survived numerous harrowing battles.  He became a geologist and discovered several new minerals from meteorites. “He was a generous-mind­ed and contemplative person who taught me about the values of peace.”

But dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that Hansen’s gift – a $50,000 contribution that TC matched dollar for dollar – reflects his philosophy about philosophy itself; and, further, about what being a philosopher implies for being a teacher, a learner and a citizen of the world.

“Philosophy, which translates literally as ‘the love of wisdom,’ urges listening before acting,” Hansen says. “I try to teach by listening to students, to the authors we read, and to my own sense of what matters. It’s always an art.”

In his 1995 book The Call to Teach (Teachers College Press), for which he spent more than 400 hours observing four highly dedicated teachers in urban schools, Hansen defines teaching as, ideally, a vocation – work that the practitioner experiences as having “social value and that provides enduring meaning.” Teachers with this outlook seek “to make a contribution and to live a deeply rooted life.” That sense of purpose empowers and sustains them regardless of whether society fully recognizes their worth. It also enables them to appreciate the worth of all students and cultures, and (this is where the listening comes in) understand that they must adapt their teaching to the strengths and needs of each individual learner.

This kind of teacher, Hansen argues in a 2015 paper titled “The Importance of Cultivating Democratic Habits in Schools: Enduring Lessons from Democracy and Education,” about John Dewey’s seminal work, models the way all of us should ideally conduct ourselves. Dewey hoped to encourage the formation of “dynamic” rather than rote habits – that is, empowering habits that “trigger, in turn, a more efficacious and expansive response to new experience.” Current American educational policy “foregrounding, as it continues to do, high stakes testing and related top-down accountability measures…may be leading students to form…hardened habits that will ill-serve them once they are immersed in the unpredictable, unwieldy, often messy social realities of work, family and other responsibilities that all adults must confront,” Hansen worries. “Such habits may work against the disposition to engage in civic thought and action – a mirror to the fact that current policy does not encourage students to see themselves as participants in the shaping of the world in which we humans dwell.”

In his most recent book, The Teacher and the World: A Study of Cosmopolitanism, (Routledge 2011), Hansen argues that “education continues to happen one person at a time,” and that teachers must support young people in learning to “respond, rather than merely react” to life, in part through a willingness “to learn from rather merely tolerate others.” Such “cosmopolitanism” does not imply arriving at some universally agreed upon set of moral precepts, but instead “the human capacity to be open reflectively to the larger world, while remaining loyal reflectively to local concerns, commitments and values.”  

Of course, you don’t have to read Hansen’s works to appreciate the heartfelt generosity of his gift. But understanding his belief in teachers and teaching makes it even clearer why he cares so much about supporting students, whom he believes have made TC’s Philosophy & Education program one of the world’s strongest. 

“Coming from remarkably diverse experiential backgrounds, our TC students are extraordinary people who have learned a great deal about the importance of listening,” Hansen says. “With their enthusiasm, creativity and openness to transformation, they teach us to listen, too.”

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