Another Metaphor for Teaching Excellence: Machiavelli’s The Prince

In her article, Donna Bowles offered some useful and stimulating ideas on how the film The Wizard of Oz suggests the “characteristics necessary for teaching excellence.” I’m sure that Professor Bowles prompted many of us to consider other classics that serve as sources of pedagogical inspiration. For me, it’s a text I use in several of my courses, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, a famous and short book on political theory and practice produced in Renaissance Italy.

Yes, I know what some of you are thinking! What can classroom teachers learn from an author who has become a byword for amoral if not immoral conduct? The longer I teach, the more I am convinced that Machiavelli’s advice regarding the exercise of power can be of value to anyone who finds him- or herself in front of a classroom, whether early or relatively late in a teaching career. Let me offer a few examples [Quotations are from the Norton Critical Edition of The Prince, translated by Robert Adams (1992)].
“If you have to make a choice, to be feared is much safer than to be loved.” (Chapter 17, p. 46) Nearly every teacher has the very human impulse to be liked, admired, and, yes, loved by one’s students, and in and of itself, that’s certainly not a bad thing. My experience, though, has taught me that when they love their teacher, students will more easily excuse themselves for letting the quality of their work slip or missing deadlines than when they justly fear the consequences of submitting slipshod or late work.

However, as Machiavelli warns, “a prince should make himself feared in such a way that, even if he gets no love, he gets no hate either; because it is perfectly possible to be feared and not hated.” (Chapter 17, p. 46) It’s not only unpleasant to be the object of hatred; it also reduces your effectiveness as a teacher. Anyone who has suffered the glare of a student who judges you as unfair, petty, or hypocritical knows exactly what I mean. The energy the student puts into hating you inevitably saps the energy that should be used to master the course material. Furthermore, the hatred you incur from one student will more likely than not affect the morale of the entire class.

Finally, let me offer what I take to be the thesis of The Prince: “A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever knew or saw in the real world, [but] there’s such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation.” (Chapter 15, p. 42) Teaching, like politics, is an “art of the possible.” (In this case, my inspiration is Otto von Bismarck.) And devising course content and effective teaching strategies to match what “should” work rather than what actually does work can bring ruin to the best intentions of even an earnest teacher and motivated students.

Dr. Paul Teverow is a history professor at Missouri Southern State University.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, vol. 20, no. 1.