For the Bookshelf: Lessons from the Masters
By Israel Galindo. Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education.
October 6, 2014—Polemics against bad teaching and poor education are a staple in social science, philosophy, and education literature. I suspect for two reasons: first, they are effective in getting readers riled up, and, second, I suppose it’s just too easy to sling tomatoes at poor teachers. After all, who among us hasn’t suffered under one? However, I do love a good rant…
Below are thoughts from critic George Steiner, in Lessons of the Masters (Harvard University Press, 2003). I’m enjoying this book on many levels, including having to use a penknife to cut the folio edges (haven’t had to do that in a long time in this age of e-books!).
Here is Steiner on poor teaching:
“Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, consciously or not, cynical in its merely utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and, metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to grey inanity the subject being presented. It drips into the child’s or the adult’s sensibility that most corrosive of acids, boredom, the marsh gas of ennui. Millions have had mathematics, poetry, logical thinking, killed for them by dead teaching, by the perhaps subconsciously vengeful mediocrity of frustrated pedagogues. Molier’s vignettes are implacable.
“Anti-teaching is statistically close to being the norm. Good teachers, fire-raisers in their pupil’s nascent souls may well be rarer than virtuoso artists or sages. Schoolmasters, trainers of mind and body, aware of what is at stake, of the interplay of trust and vulnerability, of the organic fusion between responsibility and response (what I call “answerability”) are alarmingly few. Ovid reminds us: “there is no greater wonder.” In actual fact, as we know, the majority of those to whom we entrust our children in secondary education, to whom we look to guidance and example in the academy, are more or less amiable gravediggers. They labour to diminish their students to their own level of indifferent fatigue. They do not “open Delphi” but close it.
“The contrasting ideal of a true Master is no romantic fantasy or utopia out of practical reach. The fortunate among us will have met with true Masters, be they Socrates or Emerson, Nadia Boulanger or Max Perutz. Often, they remain anomymous: isolated school masters and mistresses who wake a child’s or adolescent’s gift, who set obsession on its way. By lending a book, by staying after class willing to be sought out. In Judaism, the liturgy includes a special blessing for families at least one of whose offspring becomes a scholar.”
Education is a formative experience. To be pitied is the student whose formal education provided only a string of bad teachers. That student is one who will either never develop discernment about what meaningful transformative learning can be, or, if fortunate, may one day awaken from a slumber in the presence of a good teacher, becoming forever dissatisfied and impatient with poor teaching.
Which kind of teacher will you be? What kind of student will you shape?