George Steiner on teachers and students

Lessons of the Masters

Browsing idly at Borders yesterday, I spied this book: George Steiner’s Lessons of the Masters. I’m embarrassed to say I had not known of it before, even though Steiner is one of those thinkers and writers I try to follow as closely as I can. His Real Presences continues to inspire me and was a great comfort in the worst days of dogmatically theory-driven literary studies.

I’ve just begun reading this book but already find it electric, bracing and deeply instructive. I am confident there’s much here that must have been greeted with some alarm or even dismay by the reviewers (I haven’t looked any of them up yet, but the cover alone will likely induce anger or worse in some readers), and certainly there’s much to argue over here, but as always the depth of Steiner’s insights, drawn from the astonishing breadth of his knowledge (and what he simply attends to), touches me to the quick.

Here are magical moments I want to set down now, while the glow of my first reading still lingers:

The fortunate among us will have met with true Masters, be they Socrates or Emerson, Nadia Boulanger or Max Perutz. Often, they remain anonymous: isolated school masters and mistresses who wake a child’s or an 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….

The Socratic teacher is, famously, a midwife to the pregnant spirit, an alarm clock rousing us from amnesia, from what Heidegger would call “a forgetting of Being”…. What prevails is the motif of a creative sleeplessness. The Zen Master beats his disciples to keep them awake. Great teaching is insomnia, or ought to have been in the Garden at Gethsemane. Sleepwalkers are the natural enemies of the teacher. In Meno, Anytus, alert to the subversive, unsettling tactics of Socratic pedagogy, admonishes: “Be circumspect.” But no committed Master can be. Where there is acute discomfort–Socratic questioning can numb like “a stingray” says Meno 84–there is also love…

The pulse of teaching is persuasion. The teacher solicits attention, agreement, and, optimally, collaborative dissent. He or she invites trust: “to exchange love for love and trust for trust” as Marx put it, idealistically, in his 1844 manuscripts. Persuasion is both positive–“share this skill with me, follow me into this art and practise, read this text”–and negative–“do not believe this, do not expend effort and time on that.” The dynamics are the same: to build a community out of communication, a coherence of shared feelings, passions, refusals…. The Master, the pedagogue addresses the intellect, the imagination, the nervous system, the very inward of his listeners…. A charismatic Master, an inspired “prof” take in hand, in a radically “totalitarian,” psychosomatic grasp, the living spirit of their students or disciples. The dangers and privileges are unbounded….

A “master class,” a tutorial, a seminar, but even a lecture can generate an atmosphere saturated with tensions of the heart….

Fascinatingly, the interactive, correctible, interruptable media of word processors, of electronic textualities on the internet and the web, may amount to a return, to what Vico would call a ricorso, to orality. Screened texts are, in some sense, provisional and open-ended. These conditions may restore factors of authentic teaching as practised by Socrates and dramatized by Plato. At the same time, however, electronic literacy, with its limitless capacity for information storage and retrieval, with its data banks, militates against memory. And the face on the screen is never that live countenance which Plato or Levinas judge indispensable in any fruitful encounter between Master and disciple.

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