David Solway on The Good Teacher

excerpted from his chapter "Prospects" in Education Lost, OISE Press, 1989. pp8-11

Teachers cannot be trained, they must be found. And when they are found they must be lured, enticed, implored, dragooned, and even paid into the profession.

Education, if it is to be authentic, must be elitist. Students should not be conceived as belonging to an immense, featureless social category (roughly coterminous with early youth and adolescence), soon to be buried under a relentless avalanche of theory, technique, experiment, and dogma. Students should be conceived as a diverse collection of individuals some of whom respond to ideas and some of whom do not. (I am thinking mainly of the secondary levels now.) The corollary to this proposition is, to put it bluntly, that when a student successfully resists his education and will not be teased, badgered, or provoked into thought, then he must be given up. The student who is bright, inquisitive, and receptive must never be made to suffer in his development for the sake of the student who fails to respond to treatment. This is why most classes are sinks of averageness ' More important by far than even the sympathetic application of advanced methods, techniques, and devices is the strict maintenance of high standards, not only in the quality of instruction but in the level of entrance requirements as well. A renewed severity may have something to recommend it.

Education is not a secular profession. Education is a metanoic and transitive phenomenon. It bears a closer kinship to the primitive rite, the Eleusinian mystery, the religious communion, the dramatic "recognition," the ecstatic transformation than it does to the mundane creed of character-building, social adjustment, preparation for a career, and that valedictory pinch of talc and fragrance we recognize as "culture."' It should not be conceived as a masking and doping operation, which is all very well for silicon chips but will not likely bring out the unique and latent, complex humanness of the individual.

The teacher is neither a conduit nor a mere stimulator. Rather, he bears an intimate if secret resemblance to the mystic psychopomp, and the medium in which he works is the elusive and discredited shadow-realm of personality. The good teacher, the archontic personality, will consciously or unconsciously tend to consider the teaching situation and classroom context in the strange, ethereal light of the ritual metamorphosis.

It is clear that teaching, holistically conceived, involves both the imparting of information and skills and the instilling or evocation of an attitude. In the latter case the sine qua non is the manifestation of personality in the form of authority, drama, and a paradoxical openness. There is considerable overlap between these two categories, but the distinction is fundamental and real. This is why Performa courses, audio-visual techniques, pedagogical conferences, guides and manuals (the immense et cetera of which teaching largely consists) are unnecessary and even pernicious in

their cumulative effect. They do not touch the incunabular relation between the teacher and his sustaining discipline, and as for the relation between the teacher and his student - this is, in essence, as mysterious as that between man and wife, friend and friend, parent and child, because the teacher is not only conveying knowledge (tapes, computer, and humanoid robots would do as well), but is demiurgically fashioning an attitude, a state of mind, the contours of an identifiable self in his student. In other words, the relation is to be understood as transcendent and not as utilitarian or prudential.

From where, then, does the teacher secure his authority, if his supremacy is more than a function of superior "knowledge" or the accident of derived power, that is, an aspect of role-playing inside a system sanctioned by threat and maintained by guaranteed enforcements? Since we know that genuine authority is not coleopteran - rigid, external, and imposed - but flows from within the personality, a supple and fugitive thing and resistant to final definition, it follows that the teacher acquires his authority from himself, from a kind of spiritual equity or collateral that underwrites the enormous presumption (and often unwarranted expenditure) latent in the act of edification. He receives his diploma from the syndic of his own accomplished personality. This is the only source of authority which is both authentic and efficacious, and which is modally enacted through the convention of the dramatic transmutation. True authority is psychogenic and its expression is invariably metamorphic.


The essays grouped together here consist of personal recollections, meditations on the esoteric nature of reciprocity, and proposals for reorientation in our ways of approaching the subject. The underlaying assumption on which all the essays are predicated is that the current model for the practice of teaching - teaching as a function, as a programmatic discipline, as a species of instrumentation - is both false and harmful. This model, so widely diffused as to have become reflexive, concentrates almost exclusively on the development of techniques which can be applied and devices to be exploited in order to "maximize classroom efficiency" - and, as this last phrase is intended to suggest, the elaboration of a complementary jargon involving terminologies abstracted from engineering and cybernetics.

In short, the pervasive model for teaching is basically a technological one, with the inevitable result that education is increasingly becoming a kind of training, that knowledge is now conceived as something measurable or quantifiable, that memory is considered as storage and learning as dataretrieval, and ultimately, the human spirit as a complicated system of

mechanical and electronic functions. This is what is meant by the eclipse of humanism in our times, since it is evident that a theory of teaching must be founded on an antecedent theory of man, and the implicit theory of man which holds sway in the modern era is, in its most sophisticated form, that of man as a complex energy-system.

The model proposed in these essays is that of the ancient rite: teaching as drama and ritual, in essence formative, not informative; evocative, not communicative. This is not to say that teaching does not inform or communicate - obviously it must; but rather that the marrow-nature of teaching is the creation of an atmosphere of intellectual reciprocity and enthusiasm, the building of conviction (2) the evocation of an attitude or a state of mind. The teachers who have influenced us most profoundly, whether in elementary school or the university, in the lab or the tutorial, whom we remember with fondness and gratitude, are invariably those whose personalities impinged decisively on ours. It is their seriousness and their humor, their vitality, their command of language, their erudition, their immediacy, their dimension of self which have both impressed and changed us - that is, educated us. And the effect such teachers, the good ones, have on us is rarely dependent on the adoption of appropriate pedagogical techniques or the importation into the classroom of mechanical contrivances for the sake of a presumed efficiency.

Good teaching is rarely theatrical and always dramatic - which is not to imply that it must be visibly robust or energetic. On the contrary, it can be low-key, even quietly eccentric. By "dramatic" I mean that teaching, even in data-based subjects, if it is to be successful, must always be the expression of personality and the creation of personalities. Where this nexus is lacking, all the techniques and devices in the world, all the prior theories and Performa courses and degrees in Education, will generate nothing but boredom, pretentiousness, and some accidental information-leakage along the way. In this unfortunate dynamic, the good student is one who compensates for the bad teacher.

But the good teacher is one who, whether in the woodwork shop, the laboratory, or the graduate seminar, is constantly aware that teaching involves the incitement of personality - an activity which is essentially nonquantifiable - and that the only indispensable audio-visual "device" is the teacher himself. And that real teaching is a mystery, a rite, a drama whose purpose is to establish the conditions in which a kind of transformation can take place in the mind of the student: from monotony to interest, from ignorance to understanding, from rote to memory, from repetition to curiosity, from dispersion to cohesion. It is in this sense that teaching resembles a ceremony of initiation, by no means as solemn, as concentrated. But the psychological process is broadly similar.

On the other hand, the technological paradigm on which current praxis is based tends to develop not wonder and doubt but mere expertise, reproducible and automatic. Teaching which is founded on the theoretical model of man as an energy-construct turns out not integrated beings but functions, not individuals capable of skepticism, reflection, and historical relatedness but manipulators, performers of designated tasks and specific operations, not thinkers of thoughts but possessors of skills. Granted, we must all be raised to a job or a profession, but education is surely meant to encompass more than preparation for a trade, no matter how complex or abstruse that may be. The root of the word, "e-ducere," tells us that education is a process of leading out of or being led out of - what?' Manifestly, out of a state of ignorance or a state of dispersion, out of insularity, self-oblivion, and mental anemia - in a word, barbarism .(4) As Montaigne said, "It is not enough for our education not to spoil us; it must change us for the better."