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Teaching that's not by the book

Lessons of the Masters George Steiner Harvard University Press: 198 pp., $19.95

February 15, 2004|Robert Boyers | Robert Boyers is editor of the quarterly Salmagundi and Tisch professor of arts and letters at Skidmore College. His most recent book is "A Book of Common Praise."

This latest book by George Steiner is a series of reflections on "the charged personal encounter between master and disciple." Originally delivered as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard two years ago, the book is at once provocative and sobering. Acknowledging that the very terms "master" and "disciple" will seem to most Americans in "our present age of irreverence" more or less preposterous or laughable, Steiner defends them by examining what is at stake in the pedagogic encounter. If his book is, as he concedes, a mere "summary introduction," it is also the most trenchant and moving account we have of a theme few writers have treated with comparable panache and thoughtfulness.

The American culture wars of the last 20 years have had much to do with what is taught in classrooms and the relationship of the educational curriculum to society in general. Occasionally, participants in the ongoing debates have focused on the ideological agenda of teachers and worried over the subordination of subject matter to particular prejudices. But little has been said about the nature and depth of the impact teachers can have on students. Cultural warriors have tended to ignore what Max Weber called the "rare intoxication" produced by a genuine educational experience. Steiner argues that the standard debates have trivialized the important issues and deflected attention from the essential question: What can happen when one human being attempts to teach another? To this question Steiner attends with unapologetic passion and urgency. "To teach seriously," he writes, "is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. A Master invades, he breaks open, he can lay waste in order to cleanse and to rebuild. Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction that is, consciously or not, cynical in its merely utilitarian aims, are ruinous almost literally, murderous and, metaphorically, a sin." The theatrical language is a hallmark of Steiner's writing and perfectly conveys his conviction that teaching well is a sacred obligation, and that what sometimes happens to a lucky student is momentous.

His book evokes a range of masters and disciples, placing each charged encounter in the framework of "three principal scenarios" defining the tutelary relation. In one, "Masters have destroyed their disciples, broken their spirits, consumed their hopes, exploited their dependence." In another, "disciples, pupils, apprentices have subverted, betrayed, and ruined their Masters," while in a third there is "an eros of reciprocal trust and, indeed, love," so that "[t]he intensity of the dialogue generates friendship in the highest sense." Steiner gives no systematic explanation of the several kinds of encounter. He recognizes that, however frequently the tutelary relation conforms to one of the principal scenarios, each case entails special qualities of circumstance, mind and spirit. Just so, in choosing to work with exemplary figures -- Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, Virgil and Dante, Socrates and Alcibiades -- he avoids pragmatic reflection on ordinary classroom activities. Though the book may inspire teachers and students to think more deeply about what they do, it can be of little practical use to them or to faculty in schools of education. The author who tells us that teaching can be "an imitatio of a transcendent or, more precisely divine, act of disclosure" is not a guide to classroom protocols or textbook selection.

To say Steiner's learning serves him well in this slender book is to note how easily he moves among a host of examples. When he studies Socrates' relations with his disciples, he reveals what is essential there by looking at Jesus and examining the different nature of discipleship in the early Christian world. When he wants to get at the role of women in tutelary encounters, he counterpoints the fate of George Eliot's Dorothea (in "Middlemarch") to the twinned fates of Heloise and Abelard. Passing references to Iris Murdoch's novel "The Flight From the Enchanter" (Murdoch's master, Elias Canetti, was the model for the seductive enchanter Mischa Fox) and Joyce Carol Oates' story "The Instructor" provide a context for the more leisurely treatment of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship. If Heidegger, in Steiner's account, did not quite become for Arendt "the very figure of evil" Mischa Fox could be for Rosa in Murdoch's novel, the terms Steiner cites from Murdoch -- the "iron discretion, the assertion of power, the hint of a complexity that was beyond her" -- perfectly illuminate, by analogy or contrast, the extraordinary features of Arendt's experience.

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