Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lessons from the Masters: George Steiner on teaching

This is the first part of an ongoing series of "Lessons from the Masters," based on the writings of the Modern Wise Men I have listed in a earlier post. We begin with an outline of the introductory chapter of George Steiner's Lessons of the Masters. Steiner, an emeritus professor at the University of Geneva, is the quintessential modern wise man: he has succeeded in incorporating the best of modernist and postmodernist thinking into an essentially traditional world view. In Lessons of the Masters, Steiner discusses how wisdom is and should be passed on--as well as how it isn't and shouldn't be, bringing his incredible abilities as perhaps the worlds greatest polymath to bear on the subject.


"What empowers a man or a woman to teach another human being, where lies the wellspring of authority?"

I. The three scenarios or "structures of authority" between master and student.
A. Dominance of or Destruction by the Master of the Student: "Masters have destroyed their disciples both psychologically and, in rarer cases physically."

B. Subversion or Betrayal of the Master by the Student: "In counterpoint, disciples, pupils, apprentices have subverted, betrayed, and ruined their masters."

C. The Reciprocal Trust between Master and Student: "By a process of interaction, of osmosis, the Master learns from his disciple as he teaches him."
II. What is real teaching?
A. Teaching as Imitation: "an imitatio of a transcendent or, more precisely divine, act of disclosure." (incorporating Hiedegger's concept of alethia--that truth is an unveiling of a thing's being)

B. Teaching as Example: "only the actual life of the the Master has demonstrative proof." (incorporating Wittgenstein's denial of the possibility of textual instruction--that truth cannot be passed on through purely pedagogical means)

C. Teaching a Power Relation: "The Master possesses psychological, social, physical power...sustained by promise or menace" (incorporating Foucault's theory of power relations)

D. Refusals to Teach:
1. The master finds no disciples: Moses, Nietzsche--Zarathustra's tragedy.
2. Doctrine too dangerous to be passed on: alchemical and Kabbalistic lore.
3. Lost wisdom: solution to Fermat's theorem, Stonehenge, the Alexandrian library.
III. Teaching is dialectical: "I am most I when I am you" (Paul Celan)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Isn't this the sort of thing which initially got those home-schoolers in California in trouble?

"Steiner is adamant that 'the great and final things' cannot belong under any law of mercantile exchange; hence his liking for the early, Romantic, Marx. 'Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one. Then you can exchange love for love.' And because the true currency of pedagogy is love, it inevitably carries a powerful erotic charge. 'Eroticism, covert or declared, fantasised or enacted, is inwoven in teaching... This elemental fact has been trivialised by a fixation on sexual harassment.'"