Lessons of the Masters (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) Hardcover – 4 Nov 2003
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George Steiner, prophet and polymath, has inspired students and readers for 50 years. -- Independent, 14 November 2003
His dazzling new book is full of similarly joyful, even ecstatic, references to the rewards of teaching. -- Laurie Taylor, Times Higher, 5 December 2003
About the Author
George Steiner's books have served many a learner over the years. His After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation and In Blueheard's Castle: Some Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture have attained the status of classics.
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While accepting that the impact of computers and internet on the learning process is "already momentous", he believes, passionately, that the "charismatic aura of the inspired teacher... will surely endure... Eros and the classics are never far apart."
His book is a clarion call for the continued study of the western tradition in the highest sense, of the teachers of Jerusalem and Athens and their successors. Steiner does not dismiss Asian traditions - indeed, he calls for far better understanding of Islam. Instead, he turns his withering scorn on "artificially hyped and factitious oralities, folk texts, sub- and anti-literacies... pseudo-curricula institutionalized at the price of indispensable disciplines... history rewritten to the point of parody." Perilously dismissive sentiments if Steiner were much younger and so still vulnerable to accusations of political or academic incorrectness.
In short, a wonderful, inspirational book, still burning with intellectual fire if valedictory in tone.
"That Bach and Beethoven actualize reaches of the human endeavour surpassing rap and heavy metal, that Keats challenges insights of which Bob Dylan's lyrics are innocent is, or ought to be, self-evident whatever the socio-political connotations - and these do exist - of such convictions." (P. 143) This is as much an insight into his intellect, soul and aesthetics as it is into his preferred literary criticism and preferences as is the sub-title above " ... an Essay in the Old Criticism".
Following Nietzsche's "Oh, Mensch! Gib Acht!", there is an underlying message in the layers of intellectual high-art and erudition. Good teaching has not changed much since Socrates but many good teachers seem to be suffering the same fate in the face of modern technological innovations. Veering towards accusations of being a didactic and educational luddite, in the hallowed and intellectually rarefied atmosphere of Harvard, this may not have been considered. (The recent Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel's lecture series, "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?" showed the more recent advances in aids to thinking in use there, now available to all.)
"Even at the humble level - that of the schoolmaster - to teach, to teach well, is to be accomplice to transcendent possibilities." Steiner, his lectures and books, have been ardent accomplices for many years.
For fuller details of the book, see the other review; this is simply a recommendation.
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One figure epitomizes the Socratic figure of the French high school professor of philosophy: the philosopher Alain, who served as professor of rhetoric at the LycÃ©e Henri-IV from 1909 until 1933 and who had a profound influence on the thinking of a generation of French intellectuals. As Steiner notes, the very name of Alain is virtually unknown in the Anglo-American world, and hardly any of his writings has been translated. By contrast, they are constantly reedited in France, and generations of lycéens and lycéennes regularly use them in conjunction with Plato's dialogues as their first exposure to philosophy.
Convinced that secondary education matters more than any other, Alain refused both the Sorbonne and the laurels of the French Academy. His last class was so crowded with illustrious officialdom that Alain returned once more to teach "seriously" two days later. In his collection of personal observations, short texts published as Propos but which resonate with the echoes of his teaching voice, he expresses the view that it is the shaping of the young, indeed of the child, which will determine the health of the body politic of a nation. True to his rural Normandy origins, he believed that the supreme moral rule is "ne pas réussir", to abstain from success in a world in which "success" ineluctably entails compromise and an exaggeration of one's own achievements.
By contrast, the idea of a "master in thinking matters" goes against the American grain, where the freedom of the individual stands supreme. The context of formalities, the explicit clerisy and magisterium inherent in European culture, the social prestige of the intellect outside any economic reward are, at best, marginal to the American enterprise. The figure that comes closest to that of the Socratic pedagogue is the sports coach, and in the hall of fame of American football, that discipline which is so dependent on the coach, Knute Rockne, director of athletics at Notre Dame during the first decades of the twentieth century, established a peerless record. Another iconic figure that Steiner adds to his eclectic record is the French music educator Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the most important composers and conductors of the 20th century and whose imprint on American students was so great that she may be credited with the invention of American classical music as a genre.
In his writings, George Steiner dismisses popular interpretations of Freud, where the son wants to kill his father and sleep with his mother. But he is convinced that the relationship between Master and disciples, between teachers and pupils, is erotic by nature or, to be more precise, homoerotic. This is a theme he revisits constantly in his Lessons of the Masters: "Eroticism, covert or declared, fantasized or enacted, is inwoven in teaching, in the phenomenology of mastery and discipleship...Teaching and learning are informed by an otherwise inexpressible sexuality in the human soul...The erotic sway available for the magister, the sexual temptations exhibited, consciously or not, by the pupil, polarize the pedagogic relation."
The idea of a "pedagogic eros", of a homoerotic bond between Masters and disciples, is a well-known ploy in the intellectual trick bag of philosophy professors. Generations of students have smiled knowingly to the doubles ententes, the allusive references and learned clichés of manipulative professors, who use feelings and emotions as a substitute to reason and argumentation. For the allusion to the homoerotic practices of ancient Greece and classical Rome is, of course, never direct and plays with the connivance that abusive masters try to establish with their complacent public. The aim of sexually-laden references to Socratic pedagogy is not to understand the cultural differences between Plato's time and our own, or to investigate the multiple dimensions of sexual identity, but to unite the speaker and his audience in their shared adoration of common literary tropes.
George Steiner, otherwise independently minded, falls into this trap when he emphasizes the erotic dimension of the teacher/pupil relation. He resorts to emotions and sublimity to characterize the pedagogic relation: "Even consummate bodily possession is a small thing compared with the fearsome laying of hands on the quick of another human being, on its unfolding, implicit in teaching." Instead of explaining what he means by this reference to the most personal and sensitive aspect of our emotions, or how to defuse the charge inherent in such a relationship, he repeats the formula, which manifestly pleases himself: "To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. It is to seek access to the quick and the innermost of a child's or an adult's integrity." According to Steiner, the teaching relationship is always threatened by the twin risk of the Master's destruction of his disciple, or of the disciple's betrayal and usurpation of the Master. He dismisses attempts to expurge the classroom from abusive power struggles as "strains of Puritanism, of legalism, endemic in American history". And he uses the reference to Antinous in contemporary poetry as a "cipher" for all but the highly literate.
Alain, for one, would have disagreed. He was convinced that the relation between a Master and his disciple does not always end in betrayal or destruction. He believed that reason, rather than emotions, was to preside over the transmission of knowledge, and that a democratic society was based on pedagogical foundations and that schools were the cornerstone of the republican pact. This lesson from one particular master failed to be heard.
Steiner, almost alone as far as I can tell, has dared to account for the impulses toward fidelity, trust, seduction and betrayal in teaching and apprenticeship. "There is," Mr. Steiner maintains, "no craft more privileged than teaching." Mr. Steiner must have been a master teacher, if this book is any indication. Oh, to have been alive at that seminar....
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