George Steiner on teachers and students, part three

Steiner’s Lessons of the Masters closes on both pessimistic and hopeful notes. His pessimism, it seems to me, emerges most strongly from his sense that the very idea of Master and Disciple has been rendered problematic, in some cases all but impossible, by “the democratization of a mass-consumption system (this democratization comporting, unquestionably, liberations, honesties, hopes of the first order).” Here, though he does not mention him, Steiner touches one of Ivan Illich’s central critiques of industrialized schooling, but at a spiritual level that Illich, the ex-priest, fights shy of. Steiner writes,

I would entitle our present age as that of irreverence…. Admiration, let alone reverence, have grown outmoded.We are addicts of envy, of denigration, of downward leveling…. Celebrity, as it saturates our media existence, is the contrary to fama…. Correspondingly, the notion of the sage verges on the risible. Consciousness is populist and egalitarian, or pretends to be. Throughout mundane, secular relations the prevailing note, often bracingly American, is that of challenging impertinence. “Monuments of unaging intellect,” perhaps even our brains, are covered with graffiti. At whose entrance do students rise?

A haunting question. A colleague at another university once told me of his fond memories of applauding the teacher at the end of term, an act of gratitude and reverence that was the norm in his undergraduate school. He has other memories, less fond, of the time when he began his own teaching career, not so very long ago, when as the last days of term played themselves out he realized that there would be no applause from these students at this school, ever. That’s not to say that his students were not appreciative. Individually, they have often been overwhelmingly grateful, admiring, and even at times reverent, I suppose. In turn, he is grateful for and to them. But the memory of a class owning its owing, communally, at the end of term, is a hard one to shake.

Although Steiner suspects that technology will make the master-disciple relationship less frequent in higher education (a distinct possibility, though I would be sorry to think so myself), he does close with a soaring hymn to that relationship, to its essential reciprocity, and to its enduring value:

Libido sciendi, a lust for knowledge, an ache for understanding is incised in the best of men and women. As is the calling of the teacher. There is no craft more privileged. To awaken in another human being powers, dreams beyond one’s own; to induce in others a love for that which one loves; to make of one’s inward present their future: this is a threefold adventure like no other…. It is a satisfaction beyond compare to be the servant, the courier of the essential–knowing perfectly well how very few can be creators or discoverers of the first rank. Even at a humble level–that of the schoolmaster–to teach, to teach well, is to be accomplice to transcendent possibility. Woken, that exasperating child in the back row may write the lines, may conjecture the theorem that will busy centuries….. Where men and women toil barefoot to seek out a a Master ( a frequent hasidic trope), the life force of the spirit is safeguarded.

And then, finally, a terrific burst of insight as Steiner drives to his close, one that awakens my own ache for my many Masters, those teachers who have shown me distant horizons and the crafts to take me there. I wish I could be back in their classrooms, listening to them again, instead of trying to stammer out my own halting words. I wish I could find them somewhere, sometime, still in their prime, still scouting for talent among their students, their eyes resting on me with encouragement, with stern reminders and pedagogically sound impatience with my many delays and distractions, and finally, sometimes, with approval, sometimes even with pride and love. I think of one of my greatest Masters of all, Elizabeth Phillips, standing outside her house as I prepared to drive to San Diego to take my first job as an assistant professor of English. Seventeen years earlier I had first heard her voice, and begun to dream of the day I might earn the benediction she gave me on that July afternoon. Of a colleague in her department, she said, “he knew you were one of mine.” Indeed I was. To know that she knew it, and to hear her say it nearly two decades later, was a joy almost too great to bear.

Steiner’s final question is for me the most haunting of all. It sounds the ubi sunt? that I hear with increasing urgency as my own days increase:

We have seen that Mastery is fallible, that jealousy, vanity, falsehood, and betrayal intrude almost unavoidably. But its ever renewed hopes, the imperfect marvel of the thing, direct us to the dignitas in the human person, to its homecoming to its better self. No mechanical means, however expeditious, no materialism, however triumphant, can eradicate the daybreak we experience when we have understood a Master. That joy does nothing to alleviate death. But it makes one rage at its waste. Is there no time for another lesson?

3 thoughts on “George Steiner on teachers and students, part three

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