Tag Archives: The Teacher

Teaching on the Edge

(This is a highly abbreviated edition of a previously published page)

Once you start looking, the heartfelt criticisms of modern education are stunning. In a delightful letter written to Paul Strand from Texas in 1917, Georgia O’Keeffe told of an exhilarating risk she took in her search for authentic education: “I’ve talked in Faculty Meeting,” she wrote, “a rearing, snorting time – it was amazing to me – I just knocked everybody’s head against the wall and made hash – and told them what I thought of school teachers and their darned courses of study and raised a time generally — it was an event … I talked for conservation of thought- in the child and the student- education for the livingness of life rather than to get a certificate- That teachers are not living – they are primarily teachers … Art never seemed so worthwhile to me before” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1987, P. 166).

Another powerful example can be found in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
There was nothing in his style to indicate that Aristotle was ever one to doubt Aristotle. Phaedrus saw Aristotle as tremendously satisfied with this neat little stunt of naming and classifying everything. [He was] the prototype for the many millions of self-satisfied and truly ignorant teachers throughout history who have smugly and callously killed the creative spirits of their students with this dumb ritual of analysis, this blind rote, eternal naming of things. Walk into any of a hundred thousand classrooms today and hear the teachers divide and subdivide and interrelate and establish ‘principles’ and study ‘methods’ and what you will hear is the ghost of Aristotle speaking down through the centuries – the desiccating lifeless voice of dualistic reason (1974, p. 360).

It is tempting to dismiss these acerbic utterances as the hyperbolic fulminations of disillusioned curmudgeons. I have been struck, however, by the sincere agreement expressed by many of my students as they read these and similar texts. Far too many of my students have voiced not only dissatisfaction with, but downright hatred, of the whole enterprise of school. Many will leave college with a profound sense of relief, and will never turn to poetry, or philosophy, or history again. Further, the strength and certainty of their experience, the severity of their judgments, simply replicate my own often boring and confusing experience as a student. And so I wonder: am I, as Pirsig charges, in danger of killing the creative spirit of my students?

When I was a young teacher, I thought of myself as a teacher of texts. I had been trained in the canon of western philosophy. My job, I believed, was to transmit the wisdom of the ages; to expose a text as clearly as I could and then to dispel any difficulties my students might have. “Any questions?” I would ask, assuming an expectant John Wayne-like stance at the front of the class. Finally, a willing student would throw a plate-of-a-question into the air for me, and I would whip out my six-gun-of-an-answer and blast it into oblivion.

At the end of one class, the floor littered as usual with the debris of dead questions, I returned to my office to find a note on my desk. A colleague must have been listening to part of my lecture. His advice took the form of a quote from Malreaux that said, in effect, that one good question was worth a thousand answers. I was both touched that he had cared enough to give me some advice, and miffed to think that in his opinion I needed it. But more importantly, I had not the slightest idea what his message meant. Questions, I thought, were to be answered, and that is exactly what I was doing. What possible good, for heaven’s sake, was an unanswered question?

It did not occur to me at the time that I was forcing my students to memorize the answers to other people’s questions, questions that had never truly lived in their minds- or in mine, for that matter. Yet my dependence upon the answers found in books turned out to be a model of education that has been recognized as destructive since the very beginning.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates quotes Thamus approvingly: [writing] is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality (1920, [275A], I, p. 278)

Having the show of wisdom without the reality is the classic description of foolishness that Socrates gave at his trial that is recorded in Plato’s Apology. After questioning the wisdom of a famous politician, Socrates says: “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, -for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know” (1920, [21D], I, p. 405). Now how can a person not know something, yet labor under the fiction that he does? It seems to me that it is precisely having a head filled with vaguely understood answers that can lull a person into the false security of the fool. Thus, book learning can easily become a veil that shields a person from recognizing his own ignorance, and it is precisely this lack of recognition that is the mark of the fool. No, Plato has Phaedrus say, we must search “for the living word of knowledge which has a soul and of which the written word is no more than an image” (1920, [276A], I, p. 279).

And yet…the Beauty of Reading
Surely texts themselves, and the use of texts by the teacher, are not the core of the problem. The majesty and wisdom of great literature is simply too powerful to be dismissed. It seems obvious that books are the scholar’s basic tool, and that the mastery and love of texts are the mark of the vital teacher. Ralph Waldo Emerson was eloquent on this point: “It is remarkable,” he wrote, “the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 30).

Georgia O’Keeffe, too, was an avid reader: “I had been reading the Divine Comedy – Longfellow translation,” she wrote her friend Anita, “and the tearing storm seemed to be just a part of it all – I was so interested I read almost all night … it reads even better the second time” (Robinson, 1989, p.165). Her biographer Roxanna Robinson continues: “Georgia was reading seriously this year [1916]: Ibsen, Dante, and Nietzsche.” All of her reading raised “questions of sexual equality…. and all granted philosophical permission to develop a personal code of values” (1989, p. 165). O’Keeffe was also deeply influenced by Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ and most especially by Goethe’s Faust. Concerning the latter she wrote: “Anita it’s simply great … I almost lost my mind the day I started it” (Cowart & Hamilton, 1989, p. 16).

Here we find a crucial and fundamental difference between the quality of O’Keeffe’s reading and mine as a young teacher. I viewed books as entities in themselves, as things that contained the Truth. Engaging, surely, filled with fascinating insights and difficult ideas, but not really addressing questions which were matters of life and death to me. As long as I was simply a teacher of texts I can honestly say that I was never in danger of “almost losing my mind” over a book. “Losing one’s mind,” however, might be what education is all about: to explode the boundaries of our conditioned minds, and to open them to greater vistas. Thus the teacher who wishes to nurture learning in her students will use writings that Emerson calls “Blood-warm” (Van Doren, 1946, p. 44). She will choose books that have brought her more deeply into the conflagration of human experience -her own experience- messy, uncertain, and paradoxical. She will choose books that have exploded the boundaries of her own world, propelling her outward toward richer patterns of being.

The Power of Questions
The philosopher Jacob Needleman says: “Whether we are speaking about the education of young people, or the education of what is young and searching in ourselves, it is first of all necessary to support the love of wisdom, the sensitivity to universal ideas that throw the whole of our common life into question. To think in new categories; to envision life within a vast, new frame of reference; and through that, to awaken and orient that impulse in human nature which is deeper and higher than ego — this is the first task of real philosophy” (1986, p. 177). Real questions have the power to expand the horizons of the world. They are “those that we have all but given up hope of ever seeing asked or answered, questions that somewhere deep within us, in the child within us, we long to think about, dream about” (1986, p.8). These questions, Needleman continues, are different from the problems of philosophy: the problem of the existence of god, the problem of universals, and the like. He says: These are not the questions of philosophy; they are only the fossilized remains of what were once living and breathing “creatures.” Official philosophy, a sort of paleontology of the mind, lays out these bones and fragments and reconstructs gigantic skeletons called “philosophical arguments,” which are housed in museums called philosophy departments and philosophy texts. But reconstruction is not remembering. The “problems of philosophy” are only the tracks left by the questions of philosophy — something that has long since moved on, and is still moving on within every serious human being (1986, p. 8).

Needleman distinguishes here between problems and questions. Problems need to be solved. Questions, on the other hand, transform our experience of life and of ourselves. Their answers are not spoken or written. They can only be lived. Rainer Maria Rilke puts this well in his Letter to a Young Poet: …1 beg you …to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer (1975, p.25).

The true Socratic question, then, teeters on the brink of mystery. Questions such as this do not seek to add to the known. They push us, rather, to the edge of the unknown, and keep on pushing — until we fall in. These questions ignite the flame of wonder. A mind inflamed with wonder and a heart inflamed by longing are simply the natural human responses to a world that is cracked open by an adamantine question; a world which is itself revealed to be dynamic, like a living flame. The pronouncement of Heraclitus that “this universe …has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is , and will be — an ever-living fire … ” (1960, fro 29, p. 71), is rendered in the modern idiom by Annie Dillard: “The whole show has been on fire from the word go,” she says. “I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames” ( 1990, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, P. 9) Perhaps it was this type of creative looking into the unknown that Plato had in mind when he spoke of ‘the living word of knowledge which has a soul.’

I believe the most fundamental quality that allows one to wear the mantle of “teacher” is that she is a passionate, joyful, and skillful learner. First, she has the desire and the ability to nurture the love of wisdom in herself and in her students; second, she cultivates an ongoing engagement with what is given in texts and in experience; and third, she musters the willingness to risk the contemplative interplay between the given and the mysterious, the known and the unknown, within which the creative activity of vital teaching can unfold. Her desire is to be a mid-wife in the process of creating a newer and hopefully more comprehensive vision of human possibilities, freshly understood and beautifully rendered. The vital teacher is dancing on the razor’s edge of provisional knowledge, moving in a liminal reality between what he thinks he knows and the unexpected and surprising perspectives that emerge in a wonder-filled classroom. Robert Pirsig’s challenge touches the heart of every dedicated teacher: killing the creative spirits of our students is the last thing we want to do. And so I find myself journeying along the continuum that lies between Pirsig’s warning and this magnificent aspiration set forth in a couplet by e. e. cummings:

I would rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance (1959, p. 66).



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.)

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.”