The Teacher's Source of Authority


By:

Northrop Frye, Divisions on a Ground, Anansi, 1982



I want to consider the question of authority in education more particularly in connection with my own subject, which is the Humanities. In the Sciences, which deal primarily with man's relation to nature, the question of authority is more or less taken care of by such things as repeatable experiment and the possibility of prediction. If an astronomer can predict an eclipse to within a second, the question of authority is inevitably bound up with his method, and there is no use arguing about the validity of observations which lead to a prediction as impressive as that. But the Humanities belong to the world which man himself creates; consequently some kind of fundamental questioning of postulates is built into them from the beginning.

Many of our ideas on education derive from Plato and from the figure of Socrates which is so important in Plato. What Plato writes is normally in the form of dialogue, and the dialogue takes the form very frequently of what he calls the symposium, a group of people meeting together at a banquet and putting forward partial and individual views of a certain central theme (such as that of love in the dialogue called The Symposium), with the hope that this theme will manifest itself with all the vividness and impressiveness of a Platonic form or idea in the middle of society. In his

126IDi'z,i'si'o s on a (;ro nd



last and most complicated work, The Laws, Plato begins unexpectedly with the symposium as something which has a crucial importance in the actual regulating of society. He says that the symposium is an important element in education and is to that extent one of the ways of achieving the vision of authority which underlies the Laws. It seems extraordinary that the symposium should be used in this way in a work as serious and as comprehensive as The Laws, because elsewhere, Plato is quite clear about the limitations of the symposium in actual practice. He knows very well that most gatherings and discussion groups of this kind are really a collection of solipsistic monologues, or else a continuous embarassed silence.



The etymology of the word "symposium", which means "drinking together", is perhaps of some significance, because in actual symposia, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, one has to be drunk in order to believe in what is going on. Nevertheless, the symposium vision in Plato still survives in the mystique of the seminar and the belief that somehow or other a discussion which begins in an unstructured way will eventually achieve structure. Fifty years ago, for example, we have Stephen Leacock saying that if he had an ideal university to found, he would get a room full of students and then go out to hire a few professors when he got around to it. Here again is the belief that the discussion group is the core of education, despite all the evidence proving that what it usually is is a pooling of ignorance.

Before Socrates, we have the pre-Socratic philosophers, such figures as Heraclitus and Pythagoras, who were not so much philosophers, in the modern sense of the word, as gurus or spiritual leaders. They uttered dark sayings like "You can't dip your foot twice in the same river" and "Don't eat beans" and their only authority, so we are told by legend at any rate, was "Ipse dixit", "The master says so and that's it". What there is in an educational setting of that kind is a cult of the non-explicit, and the basis of it is the assumption that we learn only from those who do not teach. That is, such advisers, or gurus, do not teach in the sense of systematically answering questions. When you answer a question, you consolidate the mental level on which the question is asked: the efforts of such spiritual advisers are rather to keep prodding the student into making more and more adequate questions, or, at any rate, less and less inadequate questions. We find this kind of gurueducation still going on in our day, with the fashion for yogi and Zen Buddhism. In such surroundings, the teacher is a negative focus. Zen Buddhism has a typical form of dialogue in which the student asks a deeply serious question and gets a brush-off answer. We notice that it is when the teacher becomes a negative focus of this kind that he acquires a personal authority. The teacher -,who refuses to answer a question has to have tremendous authority given him by his students if he is to get away with it.

This situation survives in society, that is, a teacher is given this kind of personal authority, only -when what he is dealing with happens to be generally accepted in the society, or else extremely fashionable. Our modern conceptions of education begin rather with Socrates, who renounced the idea of the possession of unusual knowledge. He kept saying that he didn't know anything but that he was looking for something. Knowledge was replaced by search, and search took the form of following a verbal trail, the trail that we know as dialectic. Socrates came into society at the moment of transition from the spoken to the written word. The written word has a linear quality in it which the spoken word, which depends much more on repetition, does not have. We notice that in most Platonic dialogues, nothing really happens until somebody, usually Socrates, takes control of the discussion, and the other contributions are reduced to punctuation. That means, essentially, that whatever authority Socrates has, in a Socratic discussion, results from the breakdown of an ideal symposium of a type that almost never mani 'fests itself in actual experience. The same thing is true, I think, of the ordinary classroom situation, where the teacher's personal authority is acquired by default. The ideal of discussion is something which, for the most part, students are not mature enough fully to participate in.

Nevertheless, the teacher-student relationship in itself is a mutually embarrassing relationship which both are trying to escape from. So we have, in the university, a young lecturer haltingly reading his lecture notes, and the gradual growth of a sense of human presence as the discussion becomes more fluent. Perhaps once or twice in a teacher's life something of what Plato meant by the symposium actually does appear and both teacher and students recognize the common authority of the subject itself and they are all united in the vision of its power. The ghost of the symposium, similarly, revives in the community of scholars, in maintaining conferences, learned journals and the like. But there is still a lackof immediacy which accounts for the presence of what I think of as the habeas corpus element, the necessity of producing the body and hence, of keeping people travelling over immense distances in order to maintain the physical community of scholars.

It is obvious, of course, that the primary source of authority in the Humanities, as everywhere else, is neither the teacher nor the student but the subject being taught. Every teacher who has a vocation for teaching is aware of the insidious temptation of becoming an opaque rather than a transparent medium, and becoming a personal authority, so that the authority of the subject is conveyed only through him. There is also an intense will on the part of students to make a teacher into that kind of opaque source of authority, hence we have the superstition of the inspired teacher, as though it were possible for a teacher to get inspired by anything except his own subject. But while the subject taught is obviously the primary source of the teacher's authority, that is only the first step, and what I should like to discuss with you is the question of where the subject itself gets its authority.

In the first place, we realize that whatever is genuinely educational is continuous. There is always a type of student, for whom one. has a great deal of sympathy, who would like to see every lecture, every exposure to education that he has, take the form of some kind of exciting existential experience. This again is part of the mirage of the symposium which has haunted education from the earliest times. But it is clear that education is based on what the mediaeval educators called habitus, in the sense in which a man who can read Latin has the habit of Latin. The basis of education is the apprentice or initiatory education, the training in skill; and the only possible basis for that is a steady repetition of certain themes arranged in a linear sequence. There is, of course, such a thing as inorganic habit, which merely repeats a convention. One finds in primitive literature, for example, a convention repeated simply because that is the way in which it has always been done. The word superstition, in religion, means, essentially, something which persists out of inorganic habit, which continues to be done without any reason understood for doing it. In all societies there in a strong anxiety of continuity, with its sense that following precedent in the source of security. This is the primitive idea of wisdom. We can see traces of it in the wisdom literature of the Bible, where wisdom means essentially the doing of the tried and tested thing, the thingwhich has proved in experience to maintain one's stability from one day to the next. That sense of continuity goes along, of course, with a deeply conservative view of society, a sense of the authority of seniors, of prescribed curricula, of avoiding anything like a revolutionary break in society, which confronts one with a dialectic choice.

There are two levels of habit. There is the mere habit, or mechanical repetition, and there is the practice habit which is the technique of all education and is the kind of repetition that underlies the learning of every skill, such as driving a car or playing a piano. Motor skills, like piano playing and car driving, are not different in that sense from intellectual skills, because thinking is also a matter of habit and practice. How well anyone will think at any given moment will depend, like his ability to play the piano, on how much of it he has already done. The development of both motor skills and intellectual skills, through repetition, go both down and up. It goes down into the subconscious, the instinctive, the involuntary, where things that were originally a matter of conscious effort and choice become habitual and instinctive. It goes up to plateaus of understanding or increasing insight into what one is doing. The Bible tells us that this combination of effort and relaxation is even built into the work of God himself, in a ratio of six to one. There seems to be in education, therefore, an active rhythm of production and a more passive rhythm of consumption.

This has always been recognized in the history of education, but unfortunately it has been associated with the class structure of society and made into a political allegory, so that we have traditionally in society a working class, which provides the production in society, and a leisure class, for whom the productions of society are intended and who manifest, by their leisure, the fruits and the blessings of civilization, including education. Aristotle, for example, points out that the words "school" and "scholarship" are derived in Greek from the word "schole" which means "leisure" and the kind of liberal education that Plato and Aristotle are concerned with is only possible in a social class which has been freed from servile work. Similarly with the Bible, where the Apocrypha tells us that "the wisdom of the scribe cometh by opportunity of leisure, and he that hath little business shall become wise". The verse in the Psalms, "Be still (and know that I am God)", is, in the Septuagint, Scholasate, which means "have leisure" or "takeyour time", as though that were the foundation of a religious consciousness as -well.

This tradition still survives in the nineteenth century, -where the conception of the gentleman in Newman and Arnold obviously has a class reference, and it survives in our own day in the physical withdrawal from society which young people make at university. For Matthew Arnold, the conception of culture was associated with leisure and therefore with the leisure class, although Arnold saw it as operating dialectically, tending to neutralize class conflict and eventually leading us towards a classless society. But this kind of middle-class vision of education as centred in a leisurely or gentlemanly class was meeting with a good deal of resistance even then. We have, for example, William Morris, a socialist, a Marxist sympathizer, setting out in News from Nowhere an ideal of education which was really founded, like so much of the later philosophy of the Dewey school, on motor activity as an educational model. In Morris' ideal world of the future, everybody is engaged in cultivating the minor arts of carving and drawing. They also do a certain amount of heavier work but the sense of reflection, of contemplation, of the whole speculative side of education, is quite deliberately minimized in Morris' vision.

Here we have an example of something that runs all through the history of thought, the fact that in this area of thinking the important thing is to get hold of the right metaphors, diagrams 'and analogies. This educational analogy is clearly that of the human body, where the hands are the active principle and the brain, with its eyes and ears, represents something in the seat of judgment with a superior authority to the effort of working society. But not everybody has felt that this association of the leisurely aspect of education with the brain was the right metaphor. In Shakespeare's Coriolanus, for example, the main theme is the class struggle of the patricians and plebeians in ancient Rome. A spokesman for the patricians tries to rationalize the rule of patricians by the fable of the belly and the members, which comes from Aesop. The members of the body, we're told, rebelled against the belly but eventually they realized that they couldn't get along without the belly; a productive society cannot do without a consumer class.

The importance of this metaphor, for me, is in the suggestion that the real place for this kind of leisure is not on top, in the set of judgment, but below. What the fable attempts to prove is that

the belly is not really parasitic but digestive: if so, its place is below the work of society, consolidating its efforts from time to time. What we are coming to, I think, is the fact that in our own society, these conceptions of different classes, a working class and a leisure class, .are becoming simply metaphors for what are actually two aspects of every concerned and adult citizen. We have already got to the point where the phrase "leisureclass" makes no sense. Perhaps out grandchildren will be living in a world in which the phrase "working class" makes even less sense.

Liberal education, then, is not a middle class privilege, but the art of setting both the individual and society free. The movement towards freedom, in this sense, is the opposite of what Matthew Arnold meant by doing as one likes, because doing as one likes means getting pushed around by one's inner compulsions. In Milton's Areopagitica the remark is made in passing that reason is but choosing, and this remark so impressed Milton's God that he does Milton the honour of quoting him in the speech which he makes in the third book of Paradise Lost. But to say only that reason is but choice seems a trifle oversimplified even for God. One wonders what the choice is, and it is clear that in the context of Milton's whole thought, choice means the choice for freedom. This is not the same thing as free choice, because free choice indicates that freedom is built into the situation from the beginning, and for Milton it is not. Adam in the Garden of Eden is confronted with the necessity of either preserving his freedom or throwing it away and his real act would have been to preserve it. What he had to preserve was the Garden of Eden itself which surrounded him on all sides.

The implication is that what really occupies the place of the brain, the seat of judgment, the ultimate source of authority, in a kind of informing vision above action. For example, a social worker trying to work in Toronto obviously has all his or her activity motivated by an inner vision of a healthier, cleaner, less neurotic and less prejudiced Toronto than the one which he or she in actually working in. Without that vision, the whole point of the work being done would be lost; hence it is in the informing vision of action that the real source of authority in education is to be found. It is to be found in the suspension of judgment that precedes the actual judgment, the choice. It is in that assembling of the materials for choice which made John Stuart Mill base hiswhole theory of liberty on the conception of freedom of thought, and it is that informing vision which marks the moments of genuine inspiration in the arts, those moments when the creative artist feels that somehow he is in full possession of his vision and that nothing can go wrong. Here we have the two elements of the decision maker and the adviser.

Again, in the history of education, these have been represented by social metaphors. In the Renaissance, for example, the theory of education was largely based on the education of the king, because he was the most important person to get educated. Beyond the king was the courtier, the subject of Castiglione's book, which is not only one of the most beautiful books in the world, but perhaps one of the two or three genuinely great treatises on education. The courtier's function is, of course, to become an adviser. Once again, the king and the courtier in our society are metaphors for two elements within each concerned citizen, and they refer to the different kinds of authority which are traditionally described as "de facto" authority and "de jure" authority. The "de facto" authority is where the necessity for making decisions comes in, but beyond that there is the "de jure" authority which is pre-eminently the authority in education.

The characteristic of "de facto" authority is that it always involves some kind of subordination. We often think of freedom as what the individual wants to do minus what society will stop him from doing, and even when there is no king or ruling class, there is still the sense of subordinating oneself to a "de facto" authority. "De j ure" authority is a kind of authority which, like the authority of the repeatable experiment or the great work of the creative imagination, does not diminish but enhances the dignity of everyone who assents to it.

In the study of literature, for example, we begin with a response to an individual poem, then we normally go on to the total body of that poet's work, and then on to the total body of literary experience of which the poet's work forms part. Here again there is something corresponding to the ghost of the symposium which so seldom appears. The ideal literary response is a definitive experience, a response which incorporates the whole energy and power of the work of art itself. But in ordinary experience, we almost never attain such a response. We are always reading Paradise Lost with a hangover or seeing a performance of King Learwith an incompetent Cordelia; there is always something wrong with the moment of response. Hence criticism grows up as a kind of analogy of that wonderful definitive response that our actual responses all circle around, but seldom if ever, or perhaps once in a life-time, can attain.

It is only when we get to the point of having some sense of the total subject in our minds that we begin to recognize the source of an authority beyond that, of the poet or the creative artist whose work we are studying. If we are listening to music, let us say, on the level of Bach or Mozart, the response keeps shifting from the personal to the impersonal. On the one hand we feel that this is Bach, that it couldn't possibly be anybody else. On the other hand, there are moments ivhen Bach disappears, and what we feel is: this is the voice of music itself; this is what music was created to say. At that level, we are not hearing the music so much as recognizing it. The same thing happens in the literary arts. If, in watching a play of Shakespeare on the stage, we ask what the source of authority of this dramatic structure is, we answer loudly and confidently, "Shakespeare" and we get a visual impression of the poet Shakespeare writing in his garret in Elizabethan London. The two contemporary representations of him both make him look like an idiot, so we tend to substitute the later faked portraits with their noble brow and their serene expression as the symbol of the authority that we're in touch with. But at a certain point that vanishes too and we begin to realize that this is what words have been created or invented to say. At that point, eve begin to establish a kind of contact with the work of art in which authority becomes intelligible. It was a major breakthrough in literary criticism when Freud recognized in Sophocles' play of Oedipus Rex that working out of a situation which everybody goes through at some time or other in their lives. In other words, what the drama presents to us is the mirror of experiences which we have in some sense or other lived through ourselves. Bernard Shaw remarks of Claudius in Hamlet that the reason why Claudius is so fascinated by the mousetrap play is not because it's a great play, but because it's about him.

Some time ago, I was in Osaka in Japan watching a performance of the Bunraku or puppet theatre. Each puppet is manoeuvred by three attendants and the speaking parts are all taken by a speaker off-stage. After four or five hours of this, something suddenly occurred to me which I will give you in preciselythe same absurd way in which it occurred to me. It seemed to me that these puppets were quite certain that they themselves were producing all the movements and noises that the audience was hearing, even though the audience could see that they were not. And that suddenly connected in my mind with my experience, for example, of the great romances of Shakespeare's period: The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline, where the characters seem to me to have been deliberately scaled down to puppet size. Again, they seem quite certain that they are autonomous sources of what they are doing, even though it is obvious that some divinity offstage, like Jupiter in Cymbeline, or someone else on-stage, like Prospero in The Tempest, was producing it all for them.

And that in turn begins to dramatize, so to speak, the situation of drama itself. Here again, we have, as we have in the theory of education, the actors and the watchers, the players and the audience. The watcher knows more, and that fact is the source of all irony in drama. The audience always knows more about what is happening than the players on the stage do, and because the audience can walk out of the theatre at the end, they're also in a situation of greater freedom. What they are looking at in the play on the stage is a recognition of patterns that they themselves contain. Our own experience tells us that we spend our lives acting out roles and assuming one persona after another. There are pathetic illusions about encounter groups, which are supposed to get underneath a persona to the real person, but there is never anything under a persona except another persona; there is no core to that onion. The process of playing roles is infinite, and, as Hamlet's soliloquies demonstrate, we keep on dramatizing ourselves to ourselves.

So drama, which I'm taking as central form of literary education, is not only a training in the ancient axiom of knowing oneself, but also a training in something which the existentialists tell us is impossible: of being a spectator of one's own life, of developing that kind of creative schizophrenia in which one can both act and watch oneself acting at the same time. So it seems that there are, in addition to the steady effort, the forming of habit, in the learning process, elements which (again using diagrams and metaphors) are both below it and above it. The one below it is what the cultivated man gets, a possession of rarefied pleasure usually dependent on a certain kind of class structure. It is somethingwhich he can use and which can give pleasure and even serenity to his life, but it has no power to transform him. On the upper level is that descending informing vision ivhich is what Heidegger is pointing to when he says that man does not use language but responds to language. Man obviously does use language, but he does so only on the level of personal cultivation, the leisure -which Menenius in Coriolanus tells us is centred in the belly and not the brain.

We are all born under a social contract; we belong to something before we are anything, and that is the source of all the "de facto" authority which exists in a context of subordination. But the society of this social contract is only the transient appearance of society, a society in which a single psychotic with a rifle can change the Presidency of the United States, and in which empires rise and fall as rapidly as women's hem lines. It is clear that such a society has only an interim and emergency authority. Behind the transient appearance of society are the permanent realities of the arts and sciences which education leads us to. It is obvious, therefore, that the social contract has to be supplemented by an educational contract. This latter is the recognition of the reality behind the transient appearances presented in our morning newspapers and television, and it is the contract with an authority which does not diminish, but emancipates.

Every great writer, we notice, has two forms of communication; he meant something to his own time, and he means something to us across great barriers of time and space and language. He communicates to us for reasons of ten quite different from those which appealed to his own day. Our twentieth century understanding of Shakespeare is quite different from the Elizabethan understanding of Shakespeare, and if there is one thing certain about the body of Shakespearean criticism in the twentieth century, it is that Shakespeare himself would have found it unintelligible. But the fact that these double appeals, to one's own time and to our time, have to keep polarizing each other in a continued tension, leads us to a glimpse into what the permanence of the society represented by the arts and sciences really is. It is a glimpse beyond the tyranny of an irreversible time and the temporary expediencies which are the normal form of life in the ordinary world, into a world which has an authority because it lies beyond our ordinary mental capacities of time and space, and hence leads us to understand how we can be what Proust calls "giants immersed in time".