Monthly Archives: July 2014

GRADES

I loved every moment of my 45 years of university teaching–almost. 98% of the time was amazingly alive, but the 2% devoted to grading threatened to undermine the excitement of learning that had been taking place. My students and I had entered a field in which teaching and learning had become a collaborative effort. Together we had formed a joyful team of learning the skills of reading, dialoging, and assimilating congruent ideas into our individual repertoire of beliefs. But then came test time, and a not-so-subtle adversarial aura crept into the classroom. Now they had to answer my questions, not theirs, and my questions may not have been at all relevant to their interests or learning. Over the years I tried to create tests in whose answers I was sincerely interested. In Philosophy I believe there are no “right” answers. But there are “good” answers: answers that are informed, thoughtful, coherent, and ultimately personal. I found that if the students and I had been successful in creating a vital learning atmosphere, if we had managed to create a common vision of what we were doing and why we were doing it, then the tests and papers they wrote became a form of intimate communication. In a lovely book, The Art of Possibility, Ben and Roz Zander tell us that they go so far as to give every student an A on the first day of class. Then they asked their students to write an essay during the next two weeks imagining what they would say at the end of the semester about why they were A students. The idea here, it seems to me, is to give every student (and every person in your life) the unconditional love and respect that will allow them to flourish. Roz puts this beautifully: “In the absence of a vision, we are each driven by our own agenda, finding people whose interests match our own, and inattentive to those with whom we appear to have little in common. We automatically judge our players, workers, and loved ones against our standards, inadvertently pulling the wind from their sails. But with our new practice of granting an ongoing A in all our relationships, we can align ourselves with others, because the A declares and sustains a life-enhancing partnership.”

Certainly there are standards. This was especially relevant to my years as a flight instructor. It was obvious that the only reason for getting into the airplane was so that the student could become a skillful and safe pilot. Any grade less than A was unthinkable. (Who would like to fly with a pilot who had received a C in her flight training?). Again, as the Zander’s say, “a standard becomes a marker that gives the pair (teacher and student) direction. If the student hits the mark, the team is on course,; if not, well, “How fascinating.” The instructor does not personally identify with the standards, nor does the student identify personally with the results of the game.” If a flight student failed his test with the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA officials would be knocking on my door, wondering what kind of a lousy instructor I was.

I felt the same way in my university courses. A good part of my job, I thought, was to share my enthusiasm for entering the worlds of Plato or Lao Tzu or the Buddha or Camus, and igniting a joyful spark of learning in my students. Certainly, there were a few young people with pressing demands on their lives of which I had no knowledge. I could not, therefore, take their lack of engagement with my course personally. Rather than give them an F that would stay with them for the rest of their lives, however, I would suggest at mid-term that they drop the course. The vast majority of my students, however, were prepared for most classes, and came ready for action. I would tell them that if I were certain that they had done the reading, and participated well either verbally or in their written expressions, they would receive a B. I explained that it seemed to me that some few students were truly gifted, and that I would reserve the A grade for them. (I half-joked that if I had to go into another room to read an exciting paper to my wife, that was an automatic A).

This seemed to work pretty well, but of course some of my colleagues disapproved. One teacher bragged about how he had never given a passing grade to a single student of a particular nationality in all of his years of teaching. Others seemed attached to an adversarial role toward their students. The air in some faculty rooms was dense with complaints about stupid or lazy students. These types of teachers thought I was easy, but I am idealistic and perhaps naive enough to believe that if students can get a taste of the delicious flavors of learning, Socrates’ ideal of the teacher as midwife kicks in. The classroom becomes a sacred place where the human soul emerges. And when a midwife assists a woman at the birth of her child, there is no question as to whom the baby belongs.

THREE SHADOWS OF PEACEFUL WORDS

Words of Peace are everywhere. Yet their bright promise seems eclipsed in a vale of shadows that rob them of traction. Perhaps it would be helpful to look directly at the shadows in an attempt to discern what obstructions are blocking the light. On reflection, I can think of three shadows that dim the brightness of peaceful words.

The Shadow of idealism
The first is this: The devastation and human suffering visited upon so many innocent people make sweet and inspiring words seem nothing more than the sentimental idealism of a “bleeding heart liberal.” I am indeed a liberal, and my heart bleeds at the sight of the blind aggression and social injustice that inflicts pain on ordinary men, women and children. Too often, however, the words of Peace are in fact merely sentimental, serving to ameliorate the guilt of the privileged class or of the intellectual left, while having little impact upon the course of one’s life or the betterment of the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. was most disappointed in white liberals who consoled themselves with the right words, but had little follow through. How sad it is that words of love are so often anemic, while words drenched in hatred fairly burst upon the world in violent action.

It should be noted that idealism is not restricted to liberals. A few years ago, in a New York Times op-ed column, Bill Keller worried about the idealism of the Right, the Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz variety, which led us charging into Iraq to annihilate the evildoers. Idealism on either extreme tends to espouse beliefs that are global, righteous, and sure. Both tend to be rigid, clinging to a worldview that hovers in some sort of Platonic heaven. The Left, however, often speaks moving yet impotent words, often dithering under the circumspection of a watered-down version of post-modern epistemology. The Extreme Right plows ahead, applying its visions to the real world like a carpenter with his ruler.

I find myself on the Left, wanting to use words like “grace” and “transformation” and “Love,” but sometimes feeling effete and ineffective. Thich Nhat Hahn has said that “words sometimes get sick, and we have to heal them…we have to use language more carefully.” Those of us who are dedicated to peace need to find a way to add vigor to our words and grit to our dreams, so that our beliefs do not evaporate in the mists of self-justifying Idealism.

The Shadow of Verbal Inundation
This leads to the second shadow that seems to be leaching the brightness from inspiring words: we seem to be drowning in them. The academic field of conflict resolution has performed impressively over the past fifty years in analyzing the causes of conflict, the various points of intervention, and the techniques of mediation and negotiation most likely to de-escalate tensions before violence erupts. Beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors have been examined. The dynamics of intercultural communication, the varieties of conflict of interest, and the depth of identity needs have all been schematized. I am sure that all who hear or read these words are quite familiar with this literature. But for all the ink that has flowed into our books, the flow of blood continues at flood tide.

Albert Camus called the 20th century the “century of fear.” So far, the 21st century seems equally mired in the destructive loop of fear that engenders hatred that engenders violence that engenders fear, ad infinitum. War has one end, and only one end: and that is to kill people. Since World War II over 130 million people have died in over 150 wars. Violence seeks to end conflict by breaking the bodies and spirits of those on the other side. It is always a failure of imagination, a failure of intelligence, a failure of love. Camus longs for the day when words will be found more powerful than munitions. I believe in Camus’ dream, and to serve it, I believe we must do our very best to find the words today which will empower the actions of tomorrow.

The Shadow of the Known
The third shadow is this: everybody already knows all the important stuff. Teachers from Moses to Plato, from Jesus to Rumi—hundreds of enlightened women and men—all have taught love and wisdom as opposed to hatred and violence. Lord knows this is nothing new, and I wonder what I can possibly add. Lao Tzu says in verse 70 of the Tao Te Ching: “My teachings are very easy to understand, and very easy to practice, yet so few in this world understand, and so few are able to practice.”

I have always thought that the Ten Commandments were not all that astounding a revelation: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t kill each other: all common sense behaviors for a viable society, and all incredibly rare, even today. Pope John Paul II uttered clear words against the war between the US and Iraq, yet a poll by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that a full 66% of American Catholics supported the war, only 14% of US Catholic priests spoke out against the war, and that support for the war was highest among those who are most regular in church attendance. These are the some of the same folks who nod approvingly at the inspiring words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do good to them that hurt you; turn the other cheek; love your enemies,” but of course these words would sound ludicrous delivered from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Or would they? Would it not be wonderful to hear a President read these words of Lao Tzu in verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching:

Weapons are the tools of violence;
All decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
A decent man will avoid them
Except in the direst necessity.
And, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
How can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
But human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
And delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
With sorrow and with great compassion,
As if he were attending a funeral.

Let me give one further example of clear words of perennial Wisdom: in the Dhammapada, the Buddha says: “in this world, hatred is never appeased by hatred; hatred is appeased by love. This is an ancient law.”

Tomorrow I will reflect upon these ancient laws, and humbly add more words in an attempt to understand the elusive enigma of Peace.

THREE SHADOWS OF PEACEFUL WORDS #2

Gentlemen may cry Peace, Peace! But there is no Peace.
Patrick Henry, 1775

More Words??
In yesterday’s post, I quoted some peaceful words of Jesus, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu. All were written over two thousand years ago. Almost everyone would agree with them. Yet they are too often honored in the breach. And so I wonder what further words could possibly be said in order to staunch the flow of blood, hatred, indifference, and self-righteousness that threatens to engulf our world? Yet I feel an imperative to have my say in favor of love, tolerance, and non-violence. Otherwise, as Albert Camus has pointed out, in my silence I would be choosing to align myself with the segment of humanity that sees murder as a reasonable avenue to conflict resolution. The only other option would be to fade into the grey tones of apathy.

So what can I say? Perhaps the three shadows I isolated in the previous post might serve as hints or tracks I can follow in order to glean some understanding. All three shadows deal with the enigma of ineffective words: the first with those of liberal idealism; the second with the dry utterances of academia; the third with the gap that lies between the highest teachings of religion and the lives of many religious practitioners. These shadows, these stumbling blocks, have revealed the dimensions of some seemingly universal tensions: idealism vs. realism; rigidity vs. circumspection; righteousness vs. tolerance; words vs. deeds. These incompatible dyads lie at the heart of conflict. They are sources from which spring the unholy coalition of loving words and fearful actions. As long as they obtain, they will inevitably spawn the violence that crushes the body, and the acid of righteousness that corrodes the spirit. As a result, the people of the world groan under a myopic intolerance that mistakes moralism for morality, rigidity for fidelity, and blindness for patriotism.

I wonder where to insert the scalpel of analysis in order to relieve the pressure of these tensions. In this essay, let us focus on the mental rigidity and emotional righteousness that can be found throughout the political and religious spectrum, and which seems to characterize all conflict. In verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes these telling words:

People are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken,
The soft and supple will prevail.

Rigidity, or clinging attachment is a foundational concept in the teachings of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Human suffering (dukkha), said the Buddha, is caused by clinging attachment (trishna). Reflecting on the nature of attachment, therefore, might shed some light on the Psychology of Self-Righteousness.

Attachment
As Fritz Perls said so many years ago, the first job of every baby is to create a world. We are bombarded by the buzzing booming cacophony of our surroundings, and we struggle to make sense of it by forming ideas or beliefs that give form and meaning to it all. We fashion a matrix of ideas, that frame and craft a world. This construct is further enhanced by our acculturation in the home, in school, and in the churches, and it is this construct to which we cling with all our might. Now, the ignorance (avidya) that gives rise to illusion (maya) is not simply that we are unaware of the “real world.” Rather, we cling to the world that is created by our construct as though it were absolutely real. Here lies the destructive illusion: I become addicted to MY world, thinking it is THE world.

Moreover, as I build a world, so I build a self. My I, my ego, is actually a complex of ideas about who I am, what I think and believe, and how I act. I again attach to this self-image (asmita), and will not let go for dear life. Any thoughts, values, or feelings that are incompatible with this constructed self-image are quickly denied as I cling to the self I think and need to be real. Cognitive dissonance tends to produce anxiety if it is recognized. As a result, we often relegate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the periphery of awareness. Have you noticed that there is an active ingredient to ignorance? In ignorance I choose “to ignore,” “to look away from” that which I do not want to see.

This clinging to my constructed world and constructed self is understandable, for it creates a sense of sanity, a hedge against the uncertainties of life. It also acts as a bond of loyalty and fellowship with our parents and teachers and with the broader culture. I would also agree with the American Pragmatists that in the early stages of human development, this clinging is necessary. To become a fine jazz musician, for example, one needs the mastery of technique, harmony, rhythm, and structure in order to ground one’s flights of creative improvisation. It is the same in life. We need a structure, we need a history, and we need facts, in order to function in the world.

But we must not stay too long at the fair. If the jazz musician remains dependent upon the tune as written, she will be unable to discover the true miracle of music. What she plays may be very right, but it will never be very good. Her playing will lack “soul.” Likewise, it is this clinging to our received world-view as we mature that causes the greatest human pain, a pain that often escalates conflict into violence. This is so because our constructs are usually not ample enough to include the breadth and depth of life as it unfolds. When we are confronted with the demands of a complex and fluid world, and with the frameworks of other people and other cultures, we are sometimes too terrified to let go of our own secure mental constructs. This fear leads to a defensiveness that breeds stereotyping, anger, and violence.

Listening and Looking
Clinging to one’s own ideas in this way traps one in the cave of the mind. Dialogue becomes impossible, since the fortress of the closed mind renders many people incapable of truly looking and listening. In the Buddhist tradition, listening is seen as the essence of compassion. In a similar vein, the Uruguayan thinker Eduardo Galeano points out that America had elected a deaf President: “a man incapable of hearing anything more than the echos of his own voice. Deaf before the incessant thunder of millions and millions of voices that in the streets of the world are declaring for peace against war.” (“un hombre incapaz de escuchar nada mas que los ecos de su voz. Sordo ante el trueno incesante de millones y millones de voces que en las calles del mundo están declarando la paz contra la guerra.”)

Annie Dillard powerfully underscores the importance of looking when she says: “We don’t know what’s going on here…we don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” Healing words, that is, need to grow from the still ground of our looking and listening. Conflict, on the other hand, is always characterized by glare and noise. When people care more about being understood than understanding, they simply shout louder, thus making themselves impossible to hear.

Education
I am going to put the following quotation from Mahatma Gandhi in bold letters because I think it is so central:

IF WE ARE TO ACHIEVE TRUE PEACE IN THE WORLD, WE MUST START WITH THE CHILDREN.

I am thinking of education here both in the Spanish sense of educación: upbringing, and in the thought of Plato as “e ducere:” to be led out of the cave of one’s own mind. As Teilhard de Chardin taught, we human beings might be terribly imperfect, but evolution is not finished with us yet. We are works in progress, as individuals, as societies, as a human family. Liberation from the illusions that underpin righteousness takes tremendous courage. In my experience I could never have found even a smidgen of this courage without the caring nurture and inspiring example of friends, teachers, and guides to help negotiate the uncharted–and unchartable–territory of life’s mysterious surprises. As Parents, Friends, Psychologists, Educators, and Peace Activists, we must find a way to help people (including ourselves) loosen their dependence upon their constructed worlds and constructed selves. Early acculturation need not be indoctrination. It can be taught gently, lovingly, with a gradual opening to the visions of other cultures and new ideas. As education progresses and as the student matures, there comes a time—-an exhilarating time—-when the kaleidoscope of the mind shifts, and new patterns of thinking emerge. This happens again and again, as simple clicks of the wheel reveal unimagined vistas of thought and attendant feelings that have the power to transform the world and the self forever.

I believe the world’s deepest need today is for great teaching and great learning. Teaching Peace, however, does not fall only on the shoulders of the Gandhi’s and the King’s of this world. We, too, are the gatekeepers, blessed with the awesome responsibility of inviting those we meet on the quotidian byways of life to the adventure of greater conceptual amplitude and emotional intelligence. We are all teachers who stand at the threshold between love and fear, kindness and violence. George Fox, the Founder of the Quaker movement, beautifully expressed this ideal in a statement of 1656:

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may [teach] among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…”

Finally, only the teacher who is herself engaged in the risky and exhilarating process of daily creation can effectively invite other people to this journey of discovery. If we are to stand before the world as teachers, we must be willing to wear the heavy mantle of self-confrontation and self-knowledge. As Gurdjieff said: “If you wish the best for your children, you should seek it for yourselves. In fact, if you change, they will also change. Thinking of their future, you should forget them for a while, and reflect upon yourselves …Only in knowing ourselves can we look to someone else.” Thus we are challenged to strip away all pretense of certainty and all the protection of rigidity. But it is only here, in this posture of naked vulnerability, that our words and actions might coalesce into a beneficent synergy. Then, to quote an ancient Zen poem: “without trying, our smiles will heal withered hearts.”

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY

About half a century ago, one of my philosophy professors launched himself into a riff about how the life of a philosopher was irrelevant to the quality of his thought. Logical consistency, he said, was the ultimate criterion of philosophical worth. Even at the time, my young mind sensed that this could not be true. Over the years I have become even more convinced that if philosophical study does not result in a wiser, more loving and pleasant life, then it is a complete waste of time. I would sometimes joke with my students that I could not possibly give them an honest grade until they had lived for 50 years. Then I would need an email telling me how their lives had turned out. At that point, of course, they could grade themselves. It is immensely gratifying for me to see so many of my former students on this blog and on Facebook who are living creative, fulfilling and loving lives. The only small credit I can take is having had the privilege of introducing them to some wonderful friends, from Plato to Pirsig. The rest has been up to them.

It seemed to me that reading these inspiring thinkers made teaching a breeze; a joyful breeze, but a breeze nonetheless. Imagine working with the ideas of a thinker like Plato whose writings have lasted for over 2000 years. His thoughts easily inspired compelling words, but it seemed to me that those words would have been empty truisms unless they somehow had impacted my life. This is one reason I loved flying airplanes and playing music: all the fine talk came to an end when you lifted off a runway or played the first chord of a song. But how does one demonstrate philosophical sensitivity? Surely I couldn’t have my students follow me around all day. Nor did I have the courage to show them my lesser angels.

teacher 1983

It gradually dawned on me, however, that my attitudes and values showed up every day in the classroom. Did I listen carefully, and with respect? Did I value honesty over looking good? Did I have sincere love for the process of learning and for the unfolding souls of my students? Was I able to use my human frailty as a model for self-reflection and growth? I came to believe that these values were the essence of teaching, and that the spoken words were simply excuses that allowed us to come together in a field at once sacred and loving. I would begin every semester with this quote from Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.“

Aristotle once observed that the poet and the philosopher were alike in that they both began in wonder. It seems to me that true poetry and true philosophy do not talk about the world. Rather, much like the Aboriginal Dreamtime, a teacher and her students together sing the world into being. I do not mean an objective world, nor even a right world, but the very best world they can co-create on any given day. It is a world that springs from wonder and sincerity and playful intelligence. It is a verbal portrait which, when freshly and beautifully rendered, has the power to transform a life. And that, it seems to me, is never a waste of time.

Murakami on Gaza

On February 19, 2009, Haruki Murakami accepted the Jerusalem Prize for Literature. His words of five years ago resonate today.

ALWAYS ON THE SIDE OF THE EGG by HARUKI MURAKAMI

I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies. Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling them. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies – which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true – the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies. Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.

So let me tell you the truth. A fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came. The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The UN reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens – children and old people.

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me – and especially if they are warning me – “don’t go there,” “don’t do that,” I tend to want to “go there” and “do that.” It’s in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.
This is not to say that I am here to deliver a political message. To make judgments about right and wrong is one of the novelist’s most important duties, of course. It is left to each writer, however, to decide upon the form in which he or she will convey those judgments to others. I myself prefer to transform them into stories – stories that tend toward the surreal. Which is why I do not intend to stand before you today delivering a direct political message.

Please do, however, allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this: “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.” Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor. This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others – coldly, efficiently, systematically.

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories – stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up long, deeply-felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the war. He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to feel the shadow of death hovering around him. My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and one of the most important.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong – and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.
Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow The System to exploit us. We must not allow The System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made The System.

That is all I have to say to you. I am grateful to have been awarded the Jerusalem Prize. I am grateful that my books are being read by people in many parts of the world. And I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak to you here today.

ENOUGH

There has been much negative talk recently about the top 1% on the economic ladder. I do not hesitate to add my voice to the chorus of complaint against those “greedy bastards.” How can someone not be satisfied with 4 billion in the bank account?

Before I get too carried away, however, with my righteous condemnations, I would like to ask myself how complicit I am in the creation of this climate of Greed. In my experience, when I find myself highly critical of a person or a group, I often find the very thing I despise lurking in the shadowy corners of my life. Admittedly, I am typing this essay on the latest generation of IPad, and I am an avid consumer of the latest news coming out of Apple’s orchard. I will probably ditch this baby when the next gadget hits the market. Does this make me greedy? I’m not sure right now, but maybe with the help of some old friends, I can write myself closer to understanding.

Let’s start with Plato. In the first book of the Republic, Plato sets up a fascinating debate between Socrates and a hard-nosed realist named Thrasymachus. Socrates had been going on about what it means to be Good and Just, and finally Thrasymachus loses patience with philosophical ideals and points to the real world. He comes very close to saying that nice guys finish last. He fleshes this out by saying that good and just people are rule followers who don’t think for themselves and that they are weak and ineffective in their own lives. For the most part, he concludes, good people are miserably unhappy, anticipating Thoreau by 2000 years.

Actually, I think Socrates would agree that many “good” people are fearful and mindless rule followers. But he is looking for a deeper, richer meaning. Thrasymachus has characterized the unjust person as voracious in his desire for unlimited power and goods, and as a master at obtaining these things. Greed is a good thing, he says. Greed is the quality of winners.

Socrates, however, sees Greed as the height of foolishness. It is not so much immoral in the modern sense, as much as it embodies a fool’s vision of life. A moment’s thought tells us that greed yields constant dissatisfaction. I read in the paper this morning where an economist says that people want money for their peace of mind. But the inability to say “I have enough” renders contentment impossible. Greed makes the very thing that money could provide ineffective. We might say it is an existential oxymoron.

But for Socrates, the absence of the word “enough” from our vocabulary is literally an ugly thing. It lacks class. Living, for him, is an art, and as in any art, there are masters and hacks. Greed is the hallmark of the hack.

Here, as in many places, Plato creates a powerful analogy between the art of living and the art of music. He has Socrates point to the art of tuning a stringed instrument.
If all the strings are loose and I tighten them a bit, they sound better. A fool might think that if a little tightening is good, tighter and tighter will be better. Of course, this is silly, but there is a marvelous point here. The idea is that in the arts there is a point of rightness. The strings are tightened to just the right place where the instrument is brought into harmony. This requires a good and sensitive ear. Too tight, too loud, too much of anything tarnishes the beauty of music, and it tarnishes the beauty of life.

Mary Oliver speaks of being enthralled by the morning song of a migrating Thrush which had moved on by nightfall. That is ok, she says. While not enough makes for a poor life, “too much is, well, too much. Imagine Verdi or Mahler every day, all day. It would exhaust anyone.”

In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path lists Right Thought, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, etc. The word “right” is interesting here. A Western mind might hear the application of a rule, but the Japanese kanji tells a different story. It is made up of two characters, “stop” and “one:” that is, “stop here.” This is the same meaning Plato is pointing to in the Republic: there is a place of beauty where the tensions of life are in balance. Aristotle echoes this idea when he says that Virtue stands in the middle between excess and defect.

It seems to me that unbridled capitalism is based on the rejection of the idea of “enough.” I used to ask my students what they would think if the Dean offered me a big raise, and I told him thanks but I have enough. They found that action inconceivable. Yet, what is enough? Surely it is different for everyone, but isn’t there a limit?

These reflections have not brought me to an answer, but they have made clear to me the importance of asking myself what is enough money, food, or possessions for me to live a vital, beautiful, and vigorous life. Perhaps simply bringing consciousness to my consumption may avert some of the ugly unbalanced effects of greed. Lao Tsu says this beautifully:

As it acts in the world, the Tao
is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward,
the bottom is bent up.
It adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn’t enough.

Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.
They take from those who don’t have enough,
and give to those who have too much.

A FLIGHT LESSON

cessna

I was a Certified Flight Instructor for 10 years at the Burlington, Vermont international airport. I couldn’t get enough of flying. Actually, this was during a difficult time in my life, and getting up in the air helped me to keep my feet on the ground. After a couple of years of giving primary instruction, I was finally qualified to teach instrument flying. This is an entirely different ball game. Flying in the clouds without autopilot is quite tricky, and in order to understand one of the lessons I learned about teaching, I have to tell you a little about staying alive in the air. When you are in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) it is easy to become disoriented and to even lose track of whether the plane is up or down. It requires intense concentration just to stay in the air. When the pilot gets to the destination airport, however, the fun really begins. Back in the 80’s there were three basic types of instrument approaches to a runway. The most accurate approach, still used today, is called the ILS, the instrument landing system. As the pilot approaches the airport, air traffic control vectors her to intercept a radio beacon emanating from the runway. While keeping the plane level, controlling airspeed, and talking to ATC, the pilot has to carefully watch a needle on one of the dials on the panel. As it swings from the stop to the center, the pilot has to play the wind and perfectly time the rate of turn to a heading published on her approach chart. This lines her up with the runway. Then as the plane gets closer to the airport, another needle moves from top to bottom. When it is centered, it monitors the rate of descent. Now the pilot has to keep both needles centered, control the heading, the airspeed, and the rate of descent. If all goes well, the clouds open at say, 500 feet, and there is the runway! It is really an incredible feeling. (Don’t worry about all this on your next commercial flight. The pilots are very well trained, and besides, in the modern world the autopilot does most of the work.)
panel

Now to the lesson. One day an older student came to see me. He told me that he had been working on his instrument rating for over 6 months, and gone through 5 instructors and many thousands of dollars. He just couldn’t get it. Would I please give him a try? I felt so sorry for the guy. He was a physician, and the head of Neurology at a local med school. He was clearly in the top 1% of smarts. So I told him I would give him one month of lessons, and if he hadn’t qualified by that time, we would call it quits. He agreed.

Before our first lesson, I gave this situation a lot of thought. I knew that flight instructors in general, and instrument instructors in particular, could get understandably jittery. If the student is flying in the clouds toward a mountain range, all the while waiting for the ILS needle to move, and he misses it for even a fraction of a second, many instructors begin tapping the dial and yelling ILS ILS. This has many deleterious effects. It makes the student feel like a failure, and the anxiety of the instructor is contagious. Further, it doesn’t give the student a chance to catch himself, and correct a mistake on his own. It seemed obvious to me he could never learn in that atmosphere. I must admit, however, that sitting in a cloud heading toward the mountains, and waiting, waiting, for the student to react to the needle takes a certain amount of starch.

There were no clouds on the day of our first lesson, so I put the Doctor under a hood that restricted his vision to the instrument panel. He had already done the approach into the Plattsburgh, NY airport over 50 times, so I figured he knew the numbers he needed and he had his charts on his lap. As we flew across Lake Champlain to Plattsburgh, I didn’t say a word. I would catch him peeking once in a while to see what I was up to, and I would quickly look out my window, ostensibly enjoying the view of the lake. We received our vector to intercept the ILS and still I waited. The needle started moving and although he didn’t see it right away, I kept quiet. (It of course helped that I could see the mountains that day). As I hoped, he caught the movement at the last possible moment, and managed to line up with the runway. His maneuver was far from graceful, but I figured it was really the first time he had ever done an approach on his own. It was a raggedy day, but we survived. At one point, he asked “how am I doing?” and I told him to just keep flying the route and we would talk about it back at the airport. Once on the ground, I pointed out five or six things he might have done to make the flight smoother, but I could already see a change. By God, he had done it!

We flew every day for two weeks, and while we were in the air, I hardly said a word. Back in the office we would critique the flight together. My suggestions made sense to him since we were talking about actual situations we had just experienced. It was clear that he already knew what to do; someone just had to let him do it! It was a marvelous thrill to watch this fine man grow in confidence and expertise by the hour. At the end of the two weeks, the Doctor qualified with the FAA for his instrument rating, cutting our agreed upon time in half. After his flight test, he showed up at my office with a big grin and a bottle of Jameson.

The lesson I learned is now obvious, I think. If a student is truly to learn flying, or philosophy, or music, she must at some point claim the learning as her own. The teacher is not the star of the show, nor ultimately is the teacher responsible for the student’s learning. Rather, he needs to walk the razor’s edge between modelling his love of learning, caring for his subject and for his students, and then getting out of the way. A jumpy flight instructor, a piano teacher cracking your knuckles with a ruler, or a university professor tyrannizing his students with grades are all examples of lousy teaching. “The true teacher,” says Lao Tsu, “teaches without words. She views the parts with compassion, because she understands the whole. Her constant practice is humility. She doesn’t glitter like a jewel but lets herself be shaped by the Tao, as rugged and common as a stone.”

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

The Labyrinth of Love

I remember my friend Birger sitting across from me on the Shinkansen. We had spent a glorious day at the Grand Shrine of the Sun Goddess at Ise. The rural countryside of Japan unfolded like a scroll painting in the window of our coach. Birger cradled a huge bottle of Kirin Beer in his even huger fist, looked at me, and grinned his grin. “John,” he said, “it doesn’t get much better than this.” And we drank to that.

For some reason, my friend’s causal remark sparked the wonder in me. “Is this as good as it gets?” I thought. And then “How good does it get?” And finally, “How good do I expect it to get?” I immediately thought of John Stuart Mill’s observation that the foundation of happiness lies in “not expecting more from life than it is capable of bestowing.” This foundation is nowhere breached more often than in the case of love. Thomas Moore points out that “many of the problems people bring to therapy involve the high expectations and the rock-bottom experience of love. … Our love of love and our high expectations that it will somehow make life complete seem to be an integral part of the experience. Love seems to promise that life’s gaping wounds will close up and heal.” Incalculable suffering and its attendant closing of the heart follow from the jarring disharmony between love as dreamed and love as lived, love as thought about and love as experienced. As Moore says, “A sentimental philosophy of love, embracing only the romantic and the positive, fails at the first sign of shadow. … Such a partial view also presents impossible ideals and expectations. If love can’t match these ideals, it is destroyed for being inadequate.”

In this essay, in order to temper love’s sentimentality, I will follow the inspiration of Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie in the wonderful book, Their Eye Were Watching God. (The page numbers are from the 1978 edition from the University of Illinois Press). I will do my best to follow Janie’s journey in some detail without at the same time being a spoiler for those who have not read the book. Let us, then, watch how one woman walks the long, arduous, sometimes traumatic, and ultimately fulfilling path of love.

Janie’s first experience of love is physically erotic, and the poetic image of that shatteringly beautiful experience stays with her throughout her life. It was the springtime awakening of Nature resonating in her own soul and body:

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.” (24)

It is telling, I think, that Janie counts this time of erotic awakening as the beginning of her conscious life. She longs to be a tree visited by “kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world,” (25) and for the rest of her life she views herself as a blossom opening and closing in response to her own dreams and to the strange workings of the world. This image of the pear tree plays out as a litmus of love throughout the drama of her three marriages. Janie’s journey from her initial awakening to her opening as a blossom herself to her ultimate realization of the transcendental beauty of love is paradoxical in that the deeper she goes into the unexpected shadows of life, the brighter becomes her experience of herself and of love. Through all her difficulties, Janie refuses to settle for a mediocre status quo, and she courageously transforms ignorance into understanding, the need for safety into wild abandon, and a life pinched by fear into one of joyful liberation. These transformations, however, came slowly, tentatively, and with perseverance through unbelievable hardship.

Janie’s first husband, Logan Killicks, is a “good man” (28) who, she says “ain’t even talked ‘bout hittin’ me. He says he never mean to lay de weight uh his hand on me in malice. He chops all de wood he thinks Ah wants and den he totes it inside de kitchen for me. Keeps both water buckets full.” (40) Logan is one of those people who uses goodness, or righteousness, as a defensive shield against the uncertainties of life. He cries, “Ah’m too honest and hard-workin’ for anybody in yo’ family, dat’s de reason you don’t want me!” (53) Janie finds his safety and rectitude just plain dull. Even the seat of his wagon was “a lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been. The house was absent of flavor too.” (39)

Janie knew at the outset that she did not love Logan, but her Granny, born in slavery, was consumed by fear for her granddaughter. “De thought uh you bein’ kicked around from pillar tuh post is uh hurtin’ thing,” she said. “every tear you drop squeezes uh cup of blood outa my heart.” (31) Love, Granny says, is a trap: “Dat’s de very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love! Dat’s just what’s got us uh pullin and uh haulin’ and sweatin’ and doin’ from can’t see in the mornin’ till can’t see at night.” (41)

But for the strong among us, there are no wasted lessons: “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.” (44) Finally she ran off with Mayor Joe Starks, a larger-than- life politician. Joe made “a voice out of a man,” (134) and after he had fabricated an image of himself that was bigger than life, he poured all of his energy into its maintenance, becoming in effect the prisoner of his own image. A friend observes that Joe’s “got a throne in the seat of his pants. … He’s uh man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him.” (79) When Janie levels the same charge at Joe in her powerful speech at his death bed, she is aware of the effect this has had on her: “You wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded our tuh make room for yours in me.” (133) I wonder how many modern women could make the same accusation. At any rate, Janie lived and suffered through years of an ego-bound denial of life until her liberation by Joe’s death.

After some time alone, Janie was swept off her feet one day by a free spirit of a man named Tea Cake, and with him she learned the power and the vitality that come from the death of conventionalism. “So in the beginnin’,” she says, “new thoughts had tuh be thought and new words said. … He done taught me de maiden language all over.” (173) During the first blush of their relationship, Janie’s favorite name for Tea Cake was “crazy thing.’

Thus forty years of struggle and disillusionment, insight and growth had brought her to the point of loving—and being loved by—-a Crazy Thing. To Janie, Tea Cake Was Love itself: “He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.” (161) His utter spontaneity both dazzled her and kindled her spirit. She “beams out with light” (153) as she and Tea Cake “went rollicking with springtime across the world.” (137) They went fishing at midnight, and “it was so crazy digging worms by lamp light…that she felt like a child breaking rules.” (155) And when Tea Cake tells her they are going down on the muck to work, he says they are “goin’ tuh do somethin’ crazy”: they are going to a place where “folks don’t do nothin’…but make money and fun and foolishness.” (192)

This foolishness that Janie has learned is the wisdom of living with risk and uncertainty. When her friend Phoebe cautions her that in marrying Tea Cake she is “takin’ uh awful chance.” Janie responds: “No mo’ than Ah took befo’ and no mo’ than anybody else takes when dey gits married. It always changes folks, and sometimes it brings out dirt and meanness dat even de person didn’t know they had in ‘em theyselves. You know dat. Maybe Tea Cake might turn out lak dat. Maybe not. Anyhow, Ah’m ready and will’un tuh try ‘im.” (171)

Janie further explains that life and “love ain’t like a grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak the sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” (284)

Now the shore that love meets is not only different from relationship to relationship, but from day to day and hour to hour. Life shifts and changes, and people with it. And so the sea of love had its stormy and fearful moods, giving rise to doubt and jealousy: “In the cool of the afternoon the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers arrived at Janie’s ear. Doubt. All the fears that circumstance could provide and the heart feel, attacked her on every side.” (163) And so “Janie learned what it felt like to be jealous…She began to be snappish a little. A little seed of fear growing into a tree.” (203) These seeds grew until Tea Cake, terrified by the presence of a potential rival, beat Janie. It was “no brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss.” (218) This episode is one of the two most disturbing scenes in the book. The other, of course, is the shocking and tragic death of Tea Cake. (I will pass over the manner of his demise in deference to those who have yet to read the book).

For all its poetry, Hurston’s vision of love is radically unsentimental. She sees clearly that a heart needs grit in order to work out its dreams of love. Her deeper insight is that even after true love is achieved, the demons of doubt and distrust and fear continue to challenge and nurture growth. Seen in this light, these demons are part of love’s nature. They constitute its richness and vitality, for Love is like all living things: when it ceases to unfold, it dies. The beating was a terrible moment for them both but when it had passed they found themselves caring about each other, and healing each other’s pain. Those of us who have banned physical violence from our lives will still have challenging moments in our relationships. As long, however, as nothing–truly nothing— matters more than love itself, the relationship itself, every challenge will be a step toward deeper commitment.

Thus, Janie found love with Tea Cake and peace within herself, but only after years of trial and error and heartache. As she grew in wisdom and love, she sank more deeply into herself and therefore more deeply into the fabric of the world. She learned that the greatest insights into the nature of love need to be fired in the forge of life’s beauty and life’s sadness. Tea Cake—crazy, human, spontaneous Tea Cake—was a glance from God. It seems to me, that if we could all remember that our loved ones are indeed a glance from God, then that is as good as it gets.

Arrowsmith on the Teacher

At the end of my first year of teaching at St. Michael’s College in Vermont (1967-68), Dr. William Arrowsmith, Professor of Classics at the University of Texas, gave the following talk on teaching at the dedication of the (then new) Durick Library. I had never heard anything like it, and these ideas inspired and sustained me during my subsequent 45 years as a university professor.

Class of 1968 and ladies and gentlemen:

Our purpose here this afternoon is to commemorate the dedication of this library to a great teacher, a man whose life profoundly shaped the lives and minds and imaginations of many of you here. To your private commemorations of Professor Durick, rich with personal experience and gratitude, there is nothing I can add. I did not have the good fortune of knowing him personally, nor of even knowing those who knew him. So I stand at a special remove from the radiant circle of your affections and his, an invited stranger, privileged by distance and detachment to speak about the man we are honoring today—you, under the name of Professor Durick and I, under other names inferring of him what I know of them.

In either case, it is the same essential man, the same essential teacher, and his commemoration is, or should be, always much more than a family affair. It should be, after all, a matter of simple human solidarity in the presence of simple human greatness—a greatness more humble and anonymous and unassuming than the hero’s or the artist’s, but a precious greatness nonetheless: above all in its pure-minded forms. Such pure-minded greatness is extremely rare at any time, but it is less rare, I think, among teachers than, say, soldiers or artists; yet, rare as it is, its recognition is even rarer. It deserves, of course, not only recognition, but reverence and awe—the awe we owe to supreme achievement. We are too much inclined, I think, to honor the noisier and more flamboyant kinds of achievement, and to miss in those quiet and apparently usual lives the tough daily heroism of disciplined courage and achieved generosity. It is one of the revealing stupidities of the age that we suppose generosity comes naturally, a simple grace of the heart and that modesty is the virtue of naturally modest or unassuming men. It is rarely so simple.

Teachers as a group are certainly no less vain and selfish than other men. But of the few truly modest and generous teachers of my acquaintance, there is not one who owes these traits to natural endowment or temperament. In every case, they became what they are through an arduous struggle against real vanity and selfishness, in a conscious and sometimes tragic effort to realize themselves, or a part of themselves, more fully. It is an achievement that I regard with pure awe, whether it is the work of the artist or the saint or the great teacher. But it is no less proper to the teacher than to the artist or saint. Indeed, without it, the teacher can no more teach than the artist and saint can convince or convert.

Here, I think, is a crucial quality of the great teacher. He can educate others only because he has educated himself. That is his sanction. I repeat: it is only by educating ourselves that we can acquire the power to educate others. The struggle with a form, with the hard granite of human nature—dancing in chains, as Nietzsche calls it—teaches self-mastery; the self-mastery so acquired accepts harsher challenges, more austere conventions. But the evident self mastery, either in the man or the artist, confers upon him his title as educator.

And the reason is that there is no sanction greater than this visible mastery, this triumph of hard exemplification, this evidence of having paid in person for becoming what one is. It is the most compelling power in human nature and affairs, and it is something which, in different measure and degree, the saint, the hero, and the artist all share—this common charisma of the great teacher. Charisma is a much-abused word. I mean by it just this power of example; not a nimbus of personality or a halo of style, but radiant exemplification to which the student–like the writer’s audience–contributes a corresponding radiant hunger for becoming. In education, ripeness is all; only those who have realized, or are realizing, themselves, can ever hope to influence others.

Learning matters, of course. But the purpose of learning and knowledge in the humanities is not to become a learned man, a scholar, but by means of it to become a man, or a better man than you once were. The place of the humanities, the literae humaniores, in the curriculum is justified by their actual power to civilize, to humanize, to make men. If they do not do these things, they are merely pretensions; they cease to be educational and become merely decorative. But their essential agent is the teacher who by being the man he is, by exemplifying what he knows, by integrating knowledge and action, knowledge and behavior, declares in his own small person the great humanizing power of his texts. If the teacher fails, the humanities fail with him.
The teacher of Shakespeare who is also, say, a bigot or a hypocrite, invites the student to retort, “What can Shakespeare do for me, since he has obviously done nothing for the man who professes him?” And the student is right; Shakespeare has failed in the professor’s failure. If the student is naive in expecting a Shakespearean breadth and wisdom, then the assumptions of humanities and liberal education are themselves naïve or false.

It is the great or good teacher who alone can reconcile the specialist’s exact and rigorous knowledge with the moral claims of the humanities. He does so by living what he knows, realizing himself through what he studies with love. And this ripeness of a real man, a man in whom speech and action are one, who shows in everything he does that grasp and urgency of understanding that make him remarkable and relevant to those who are less ripe—this ripeness is the only justification of the humanities, apart from antiquarian curiosity. And their whole educational function is to create in the student the apposite aspiration. To the student who asks, “Why should I study Greek or German or whatever?”, the teacher’s most effective answer—provided it is true—is simply “I am” or “what I want to be, but am not yet”. If it is true, the arrogance does not matter. For in this way a dialogue of natural emulation is set up between student and teacher, each educating the other by something like contrapuntal aspiration.

There is, of course, no single style of great teaching, no Platonic idea of the Teacher. Traditions, styles and aspirations differ as much from teacher to teacher as from student to student. The embodiment the teacher attempts may be personal, rational, or contemplative; scientific or hunanistic; meditative or activist. What matters is the integration of significant life and significant knowledge, compassionate study and informed conduct. The combinations are infinite and there is no hierarchy or preferred pattern. If a man is intelligent and conscientious, it can be assured him that he will find his proper relevance and use, his own appropriate and personal field of action. If not, he will be discovered by those who need him and find him relevant to their lives. No teacher tries to be relevant; he is or he isn’t, by virtue of what he is and what he does and how well he does it. “The present,” as Whitehead said, “contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past and it is the future. The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present…The communion of saints is a great and inspiring assemblage, but it has only one possible hall of meeting, and that is the present.” It is the same with teachers as with saints; so long as they are engaged in realizing themselves, in becoming what they are, they are almost entirely in the present. Knowledge itself can be of any time, but to be what one knows—this is only possible in the present. One does not become relevant simply by being there, but one must at least be there to be relevant. Pedantry is, by definition, irrelevant knowledge, knowledge of no conceivable earthly use, mediated by a man of no human use. And any education based upon the presumption that what is professionally interesting to the teacher is relevant to the student is clearly pedantic, an absurdity, a monstrosity.

The first principle of all education and the basis of all good teaching is respect for the human aspirations of your student, his hope of somehow sharing in the greatness of the species, or even in a greatness of his own. What he understands of Plato and Bach is what justifies his aspiration just as it defines his limits. The task of the great teacher is to realize this hope to its limits, to elicit as much of the student’s human skill and imagination and force of mind as he possibly can. And this is most effectively done by assuming that your student is capable and by respecting, with as much personal greatness as you yourself can muster, your student’s share in the highest human hopes. If this respect is missing, if the audience is distrusted, nothing of any educational value can occur. Emerson makes my point. “Our culture,” he writes, “has truckled to the times. It is not manworthy. If the best and spiritual are omitted, so are the practical and moral. It does not make us brave or free. We teach boys to be such men as they are. We do not teach them to aspire to be all they can. We do not give them a training as if we believed in their noble nature…We aim to make accountants, attorneys, engineers, but not to make able, earnest, great-hearted men”

“As if we believed in their noble nature…” It is no longer easy to believe such things; we have been taught to expect the worst and we therefore tend to create it by anticipation. Our techniques for trouble surpass our skills for survival. But that belief, whether as desperate hope or unkickable habit or simpIe naivete, is one without which the great teacher cannot teach. I know of no great teacher who can do without it. It comes, I suppose, originally from his own nature, and is deepened and reinforced by what he reads, the texts whose custodian and interpreter he is. In time it becomes complex and rich with meaning, inflected with irony and darker knowledge. It is refreshed and exhausted and firmed by contact with the young; it is eroded an ingrained by being live and acted upon. But it is always significantly there. Seconded by intelligence, imagination, wit and style, it is indistinguishable in its upper reaches from the highest nobilities of talent. Like them, it is itself nobility, the belief itself finally transformed into the thing believed in.

Let me close by reading you the most perfect account of education I know. It is a brief passage of Nietzsche in which, it seems to me, everything of essential importance about the significance of the teacher is said, and said with stunning accuracy and power. The key idea is love: love for people, ideas, works of art, activities, anything. Love is our guide to what we need intellectually and morally, and that love is always a collaborative and liberating effort, linking learner and teacher, student and text, reaaer and poem, in a complementary process of crucial importance. “How,” Nietzsche asks, “can a mind find out who he is? How will he know that what he finds is the real thing and not another husk of false or deceptive identity?” And he answers, “Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask: what up to now have you truly loved, what has raised up your soul, what ruled it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence, these teachers, before you, and perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield to you a law, a basic law of your true self. Compare these objects, see how one teacher completes, enlarges, exceeds, transfigures the other, how they form a ladder on which you have so far climbed up toward yourself. For your true being does not lie hidden deep within you but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you customarily accept as your own self. Your true teachers, the men who formed you and educated you, reveal to you what is the true original sense and basic stuff of your being, something absolutely ineducable and unformable, but certainly something difficult of access, fettered, paralyzed: your teachers can only be your liberators. And that is the secret of all education and culture: it does not give artificial limbs, wax noses, or spectacles for the eyes—that which can give those gifts is merely a caricature of education. Education on the contrary is liberation.”