Teaching that's not by the book

Robert Boyers is editor of the quarterly Salmagundi and Tisch professor of arts and letters at Skidmore College. His most recent book is "A Book of Common Praise."

This latest book by George Steiner is a series of reflections on "the charged personal encounter between master and disciple." Originally delivered as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard two years ago, the book is at once provocative and sobering. Acknowledging that the very terms "master" and "disciple" will seem to most Americans in "our present age of irreverence" more or less preposterous or laughable, Steiner defends them by examining what is at stake in the pedagogic encounter. If his book is, as he concedes, a mere "summary introduction," it is also the most trenchant and moving account we have of a theme few writers have treated with comparable panache and thoughtfulness.

The American culture wars of the last 20 years have had much to do with what is taught in classrooms and the relationship of the educational curriculum to society in general. Occasionally, participants in the ongoing debates have focused on the ideological agenda of teachers and worried over the subordination of subject matter to particular prejudices. But little has been said about the nature and depth of the impact teachers can have on students. Cultural warriors have tended to ignore what Max Weber called the "rare intoxication" produced by a genuine educational experience. Steiner argues that the standard debates have trivialized the important issues and deflected attention from the essential question: What can happen when one human being attempts to teach another? To this question Steiner attends with unapologetic passion and urgency. "To teach seriously," he writes, "is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. A Master invades, he breaks open, he can lay waste in order to cleanse and to rebuild. Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction that is, consciously or not, cynical in its merely utilitarian aims, are ruinous almost literally, murderous and, metaphorically, a sin." The theatrical language is a hallmark of Steiner's writing and perfectly conveys his conviction that teaching well is a sacred obligation, and that what sometimes happens to a lucky student is momentous.

His book evokes a range of masters and disciples, placing each charged encounter in the framework of "three principal scenarios" defining the tutelary relation. In one, "Masters have destroyed their disciples, broken their spirits, consumed their hopes, exploited their dependence." In another, "disciples, pupils, apprentices have subverted, betrayed, and ruined their Masters," while in a third there is "an eros of reciprocal trust and, indeed, love," so that "[t]he intensity of the dialogue generates friendship in the highest sense." Steiner gives no systematic explanation of the several kinds of encounter. He recognizes that, however frequently the tutelary relation conforms to one of the principal scenarios, each case entails special qualities of circumstance, mind and spirit. Just so, in choosing to work with exemplary figures -- Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, Virgil and Dante, Socrates and Alcibiades -- he avoids pragmatic reflection on ordinary classroom activities. Though the book may inspire teachers and students to think more deeply about what they do, it can be of little practical use to them or to faculty in schools of education. The author who tells us that teaching can be "an imitatio of a transcendent or, more precisely divine, act of disclosure" is not a guide to classroom protocols or textbook selection.

To say Steiner's learning serves him well in this slender book is to note how easily he moves among a host of examples. When he studies Socrates' relations with his disciples, he reveals what is essential there by looking at Jesus and examining the different nature of discipleship in the early Christian world. When he wants to get at the role of women in tutelary encounters, he counterpoints the fate of George Eliot's Dorothea (in "Middlemarch") to the twinned fates of Heloise and Abelard. Passing references to Iris Murdoch's novel "The Flight From the Enchanter" (Murdoch's master, Elias Canetti, was the model for the seductive enchanter Mischa Fox) and Joyce Carol Oates' story "The Instructor" provide a context for the more leisurely treatment of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship. If Heidegger, in Steiner's account, did not quite become for Arendt "the very figure of evil" Mischa Fox could be for Rosa in Murdoch's novel, the terms Steiner cites from Murdoch -- the "iron discretion, the assertion of power, the hint of a complexity that was beyond her" -- perfectly illuminate, by analogy or contrast, the extraordinary features of Arendt's experience.

Steiner has always been an ardent theorizer, but he is also a vivid portrait painter and polemicist. Even in summary treatments of this or that case, he starts many hares and often brilliantly, tersely, tracks them to their lairs. Each chapter contains suggestive leads that might instigate entire doctoral dissertations. Should teachers be blamed for the actions of disciples who "merely" carry out what they think they have been taught? Not surprisingly, as he teases out the implications of this question, the example of Nietzsche comes to Steiner's mind, and the responsibility he was once said to bear for the uses made of him by Nazis and others who hoped to live "beyond good and evil." Must teachers anticipate such uses and caution against certain misreadings or appropriation? So Steiner wonders as he looks as well at the more recent example of the philosopher Antonio Negri, who "exercised a compelling spell over his disciples in the red brigades" and spent years in prison for "complicity" and "incitement to murder." The Negri case is, to be sure, colorful and engaging in itself, and Steiner rightly resists any temptation he might have felt to resolve the attendant quandaries with simplifying categorical denunciations. But he sticks with the quandaries long enough to make them yield more than mild expressions of wonder or resigned shrugs. Negri's teaching, Steiner suggests, may not have demanded "the gunning down of policemen," but it did provide "that eventuality with a sanction of theoretically licensed inevitability." Real teaching, in other words, must entail a degree of "grave apprehension" about the "merely" theoretical possibility. Negri and others like him apparently did not teach to "awaken doubts," did not "train for dissent" where dissent could be directed at the lessons of the master himself. "To teach greatly," Steiner writes, "is to school the disciple for departure," where "departure" is a condition entailing bold independence and steadfast misgiving.

There are provocative formulations in Steiner, stabs of brilliant color, flarings of metaphor. Nothing lies limp on the page. What might in other hands seem gray or cautionary bristles with implication. Arcane material -- Heidegger's critique of his teacher Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, for example -- is concisely and intelligibly presented, issues of personal betrayal and loving intimacy sharply etched. Occasional withering observations alternate with spirited passages on sophistry, on teacherly sobriety and eloquence, on teaching by example rather than by precept. Steiner's idiom is in keeping with the tenor of the models invoked: The rabbinic master is "a virtuoso of parable" from whose person "charisma emanates." Nadia Boulanger's "engagement in the act of teaching was absolute, 'totalitarian' in the rarest sense." Among Karl Popper's disciples "there was savage infighting" and recourse to "envenomed" language. Max Weber is embraced for his insistence that the true student, like the true teacher, must "convince himself that the fate of his soul depends on whether his particular interpretation of a certain passage in a manuscript is correct." Again and again, as he quotes from Freud, Nietzsche, Goethe, Pessoa, Dante and Virgil, Steiner finds language and thinking commensurate in intensity with his own.

Does a thesis inform all aspects of Steiner's book? He is the enemy of the utilitarian and routine -- that much is clear. Cynicism, he suggests, is the failure to concern oneself with "what is most vital" in the student and most essential in the pedagogic encounter. To awaken "a permanent hunger" in the student is the goal. When he speaks of cleansing and rebuilding, he identifies a teacherly mission that aims to challenge and, if necessary, abolish a student's habits of response. He does not insist that there is just one acceptable model for the relation between teachers and students: There is a model in Knute Rockne's coaching of football players that has little in common with the Socratic model he celebrates for another kind of instruction. The erotic, he asserts, is often a central feature of relations between effective teachers and their students, and he is impatient with the current view of it as a "problem" to be eliminated by application of harassment statutes. But Steiner nowhere offers a programmatic version of pedagogy and nowhere claims that without the erotic component or "totalitarian" absolutism no genuine teaching can take place. The effect of his book is to make us understand that there are many variants of the successful master-disciple relation and that the besetting sin educators must tirelessly address is the tendency to regard teaching as little more than a job and students as those who are merely trained to perform tasks. In his forays into numerous exemplary instances, Steiner demonstrates what it means to think about teaching and learning with all one's heart and with the indispensable assistance of prodigious learning. *

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