David Solway on "The Good Teacher"

excerpted from "The Good Teacher" in his Education Lost, OISE Press, 1989.



'There is no such thing as an effective method in the custody of a defective teacher. I have never known a bad teacher who could be improved by a good method. And I have never known a good teacher who needed one.'

-Neil Postman: Teaching as a Conserving Activity

The master was an old Turtle - we used to call him Tortoise

"Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.

"We called him Tortoise because he taught us, said the Mock Turtle angrily ...

-Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The teachers whom I remember as having exercised a decisive influence on my own development as a student were rarely those who would have done well in Teachers' Training College. Some of these were splendid teachers anyway - articulate, funny, erudite, and compelling. Others were so poor they could only charitably be described as failures. When Mr Curreymills suffered a nervous breakdown during Quadratics in full view of his high school class - this after a half-year of threat, expostulation, and paroxysms of helpless rage - he altered the course of my

academic career and revised my notion of the profession. That was the last time I ever placed a tack to puncture authority. Or, much later, when old Professor Gill lectured us on modern literature from a thick, yellowing sheaf of notes he had no doubt compiled thirty years before in his glory days as a graduate student, I conceived an enduring love for paper, parchment, vellum, anything one could write on - which disposed me to consider literature as a vocation. I was never bored by his droning monotone, but waited impatiently for the climactic moment when he would lick his finger like a postage-stamp and then turn the sepia and deckle-edged page, a reverent Egyptologist. I loved the sound the paper made, half-rustle and half-crackle, as the withered leaf of dead ambitions settled to mulch in his portfolio. Bad teachers occasionally have much to tell us.

But what do we mean by a "good" teacher? We often tend to confuse the "good" teacher with the "qualified" teacher, forgetting there is a world of difference between quality and qualification. Hiring committees base their judgments largely on a teacher's paper value, counting degrees and certificates as if they were convertible into the cash value of intrinsic competence. Perhaps the majority of these teachers, hired on the strength of a quasi-fiduciary illusion, turn out to be academic wimps of the first magnitude. There must be some other way, one would like to suppose, regardless of how expensive and time-consuming, to distinguish the good from the qualified. Job-proctoring sounds fine in theory but practice as usual proves otherwise. Once a teacher gets on staff he becomes almost undislodgeable, the archetypal limpet. Once he acquires tenure, he becomes part of the rock.

And by "good" we certainly don't mean "conspicuous." A teacher may devote himself to activities on behalf of the students; he may become an indispensable member of half a dozen committees; he may write letters to the editor opposing ministerial fiat and so attain a kind of community prominence; he may campaign for anything from better day-care facilities to new methods of professional evaluation. All this briskness and alacrity has nothing to do with the matter at hand, yet the poor teacher may become the staff patrician as a result of such prodigious and futile activity.

Nor do we mean "reliable" to the exclusion of other, at times antinomial, traits - some of our most influential teachers may in fact have been notoriously irresponsible. Reliability is meritorious but not imperative. A teacher may be punctual, hardworking, prepared to the hilt, strict in the performance of his manifold duties - yet, when the vote is counted in later life, eminently forgettable.

And finally, we do not, or certainly should not, mean "popular." Not that quality and popularity are mutually exclusive, but how often in future reckonings do we not give belated recognition to the teacher we scorned or detested, the one whose classes we did everything in our power to avoid, whose lectures we attended only grudgingly and out of direst necessity and who, nevertheless, took our dull, refractory, amorphous minds and gave them shape and substance? The man or woman we loved to hate; then, as insight offered, still reluctant, hated to love; and at last, old enough for gratitude, hate not to have loved when the opportunity was there. (pp 15-17)

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...One thing these five men had in common is that none of them was trained to be a teacher. Each specialized in his particular discipline, whether athletics as in the case of Mr Warner or the Kantian Critique in that of Professor Furey. At the same time not one of them remained locked within the mental precinct or the point of view of a single discipline. Mr Warner believed in strenuous intellectual effort and was a competent mathematician. Mr Small had taken his degree in History. Professor Braithwaite was the last of the old-time Humanists and taught us as much about the good manners of the mind, with all his sweet, Erasmian diffidence, as about the history of Philosophy. Professor Furey was also an expert in British empiricism. And Professor Kvajek, though he had graduated with a doctorate in Literature, knew everything there was to know about anything. He could talk on the subject of the printing press, the French Revolution, the rise of Science, the Renaissance, or the riddles of Social Credit with equal fluency and conviction.

But none of them had studied to be teachers - a negative feature yet one that strikes me as extremely revealing. For today education is increasingly considered not only as a process, an act of intellectual incitement, but as a discipline in itself. There is no doubt that "Education" is a branch of Philosophy, vaguely related to the problems of Epistemology, and as such has provoked the interest of the great thinkers from Plato to John Dewey. This inquiry is both legitimate and indispensable since the mysteries of transmission, absorption, and synthesis, of reciprocity and relationship, must continue to engage the human imagination if it is not to grow moribund. But this is not the same thing as to set up a kind of Polytechnic Institute of Learning accredited to churn out presumably qualified educators who have specialized chiefly in the discipline of educating. Too much emphasis has been laid on form at the expense of content - which is, after all, the modern intellectual heresy par excellence. The situation here closely parallels that in one of the most popular of current studies, Communications, which takes centre stage in a world which can transmit messages over vast distances instantaneously via satellite technology but finds that it has almost nothing to say. It is pretty well "testing - one, two three." Everyone is dimly and uncomfortably aware of this paradox and many try to sedate conscience by the subtle and insidious trick of turning form into its own content. Hence, Education concentrates on the techniques of education and Communications focus on the means and mechanics of communicating. Add one or two courses on the evolution of the subject, blend a few cloves of "philosophy" into the remoulade, and presto! a new and authoritative academic subject.'

But it is all very undernourishing, like eating the menu instead of the supper, like talking about talking. There is a hollowness at the centre of the modern world, a cancer of the spirit which devours the marrow of our lives and which is expressed by the rampant proliferation of metadisciplines and "theory of" studies. For there is a false assumption, a misapprehension, at the heart of our obsession, which is, to put it succinctly, that technique guarantees substance. We have become so incorrigibly fascinated with means that we have forgotten about matter, which we have been assured is merely a philosophical fiction that flourished in the Middle Ages or an accident of our gross sensoria that Science has finally corrected. In short, we have become children again, victims of what Huizinga characterized as "puerilism," the mononucleosis of the century. We have succumbed to the enchantment of complex instrumentation - in everything from the intricate control panels of our cars (once called dashboards) to our very bodies which the plethora of modern sexual manuals have taught us to consider as pleasure-mechanisms. And when it comes to the mind, we have our communications seminars which instruct us, au fond, in how to transmit our confusion and banality with maximum efficiency, and our education faculties which teach us how to teach - what? Nothing very much, I'm afraid, for the true nature of teaching has been flagrantly misunderstood.

Let us try, then, to determine what "teaching" in fact comprises, to distinguish its constituent elements. First of all, obviously, it consists of conveying or imparting a certain "material" - that which teachers are fond of saying they must "cover" within a certain time period. This is selfevident. Yet the problem that immediately arises is that of deflection or inadequate preparation, given that many if not most teachers today are coerced to invest an excessive amount of time and energy in the metaphysics of pedagogy (otherwise known as teacher-training), that would be better spent in assimilating their chosen subject or "area of competence." This tendency has generated a new breed of instructors who have become experts, apparently, in transmitting that which they have failed to master adequately.2 Many are quite earnest about their work (or "mandate," as they like to say) and are without the slightest intention of chicanery or deceit. Yet, inevitably, a tainted air of impostorship hangs about their activity. They know all the latest techniques for illustrating a thesis or sparking communication or reducing tension or defusing intimidation but are forced to scurry quickly, like cortical centipedes, over those regions of their subject which they do not command with the authority and sureness which compel genuine respect.

Clearly, there is an obverse or corresponding problem here as well. Complete mastery of a subject does not ensure equal competence in its dissemination. The most educated scholars often make the poorest teachers. Unfortunately, remedial teaching is of little help. No amount of Performa courses will turn a biplane into a spaceship, and the drone who has studied pedagogical elocution will more often than not impress students as someone who is either affected or retarded, prone to self-consciousness yet oblivious of the effect he is creating, in a word, "hokey.

The material: the primary ingredient, without which no teaching is possible, and that nevertheless involves us in a profusion of difficulties for which no solution is foreseeable or even probable. We accept this as a case of the virtue's attendant vice or defect. Conquer the material, incorporate it until it becomes an integral part of the sensibility so that teaching takes on the effortlessness and improvisational character of good conversation where the miracle is possible to begin with. And where it is not, the best we can do is avoid the meretricious. Rather a student fall asleep than regard you with waking contempt.

If the first criterion of good teaching is mastery of the subject, the assimilation of content, not disembodied form, the second is personality the quality which resists the hubris of ultimate definition. But we can say that personality is a form of spiritual impact, a kind of continuous subjective event which has the power of changing our lives. Thus, personality can be either demonic or transcendent, provided that it is apocalyptic. Conrad's Mr Kurtz was certainly a Luciferian nature, yet the Russian affirmed that "he has changed my life," and Marlow, the protagonist, experienced a sea-change as a result of his concussion with that dark and inscrutable antagonist. And Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust proves himself the most conscientious of preceptors, pausing before the class of innocents that Faust has turned over to him and debating whether it might not be preferable to withhold his inflammatory knowledge. Still, I would have given much to have attended that seminar.

But here, in order to avoid ethical convolution, I will confine myself to personality in its transcendent function. By "personality" I think we mean that aspect of human being that makes a difference for what we recognize as "the better" and that strikes us as somehow unprecedented, unified, and distinctively memorable. It is the unique combination of what Confucius analyzed as the "chih" and the "wen," nature and pattern, which produces that rarest of individuals, the "gentleman." "Personality" is often though not always entertaining, is invariably dramatic though not necessarily theatrical, includes a capacity for diligence as well as reflection, and is infallibly distinguished by a fundamental seriousness at the same time that it is qualified by at least one of the three great moral solvents - humor, modesty, or disinterestedness.'

Whatever we mean by "personality," it is something that cannot be taught or invented but can be worked on and perfected, assuming its prior existence. It is donative,(4 )something given, a mysterious datum, a conatus, a spiritual fact very much as a muscular physique is a somatic one. The analogy holds in so far as both mind and body may be developed, though one cannot evade or change the fact that some people are born bright just as others are born tall. Only, the former is transitive and the latter is not. To describe its effect we have to use a word like "presence" - so many people are essentially absent and we have to love them in order to remember them. Whereas physical beauty or strength is denoted by words like "conspicuous" or even "startling," that is, we are amazed but not influenced or altered.

The good teachers invariably possess this delphic attribute we designate by "personality," which may explain why they are so few and far between. They are the ones who have not only mastered the material but who exhibit the quality of "presence," the strange nimbus of the sensibility that children translate as power and adults as authority. They impinge on our own larval or thwarted personalities in such a way that we must respond - provided there is a germ of receptivity in us - by feeling guilty and exhilarated at the same time: despairing over our baulked intellects, inspired by the prospect of partial emulation and relative accomplishment.

Now as we all know deep down, technical competence is no substitute for the seminal mystery of personality, or "spirit," as the ancients said. The teacher who graduates from Training College armed with all the latest findings of pedagogical science, with the expertise of the sound technician and the video adept, with the tactical know-how of the conference moderator and the strenuous flexibility of the psychotherapist, with the conviction that student rebelliousness and indifference are functions of deprivation and must be treated accordingly, and with a truckload of theories and hypotheses governing the nature of communication and "interactivity"I - at bottom nothing more than a crude form of incentive-mongering this teacher will as often as not appear to the student as someone to be pitied or ignored or, at best, when the pressure mounts, to be tolerated. The intelligent teacher in this position will realize that he is somehow defrauding his students and will be unable to suppress a certain ill-at-easeness, a hindering self-consciousness that is bound to reduce his effectiveness. The perfunctory or unintelligent teacher, no matter how well-equipped with all the latest pedagogical gadgetry, will simply go through the motions, following his strategical cookbook with no innate feel for what he is doing; and the best we can say for him is that if he does no harm it is owing to the general insensitivity of his students, who may cram a certain amount of information into their cranial rucksacks but will havelearned nothing about what they have learned, and are either too dull or too frivolous or too cynical to be resentful.

I am not so naive as to suppose that this problem is ever going to be rectified, but I do not see why it need be systematically exacerbated. The current emphasis on technique merely clouds the issue and distracts the attention. We are working with deficits here - the number of good teachers will always remain minimal and nothing is going to change this lamentable fact. But as a consequence of the technological Arianism to which perhaps the majority of us adhere today, that number will be significantly diminished. Good teachers are also human and may tend to grow discouraged by the premium which is ignorantly placed on expertise, on technical proficiency, on formula and method, on operational contexts. Not only that, the potential for true excellence in a young teacher may be frustrated or inhibited by the accentuations of the technological imperative. Instead of being encouraged to read, to think, to converse, to acquire mastery, he is tightly confined in his pedagogical swaddling clothes, mentally bound, and so matriculates already partially deformed. Depending on the nature of his apprenticeship, he is trained either to pamper, cajole, appeal - that is, whether he knows it or not, to condescend; or to disseminate efficiently, as if mental transactions resembled the exchange of measurable energy quanta. Sometimes he internalizes both functions so that instead of a teacher we confront that monstrous hybrid, the psychologist-cum-engineer. His influence, if he has one, is invincibly negative, for the simple reason that something vital has been left out the human spirit, the questing, interrogative, voluntary, world-accessible faculty that we occasionally harbor, the aptitude for wonder and joy, the talent to be impressed by the right things; in short, the capacity for reverence.

Instead, the whole thrust and burden of contemporary education is to create a learning situation in which skills and dexterities are transmitted and data accumulated; and which, for purposes of verification, can be assessed and computed according to timetable and prior intention. This is the crux, what in Quebec is called "le virage technologique." What this implies, it is important to see, is not only an increased emphasis on the "hard" disciplines - on the sciences, technologies, and administrative subjects - but on the atmospherics and the accessories of teaching. The latent sensibility is entirely gerundive, managerial. Students are being processed, not taught; instructed, not transformed. Teachers are regarded as intellectual foremen following directives issued by a higher authority that is concerned with turning out and marketing a product. And this product must be testable, transferrable, timely, adjustable, and relevant - but relevant from the standpoint of exclusively material and economic considerations. It is precisely in this sense that the discrimination between training and education has been obscured if not lost. The environment that now prevails is almost wholly manipulative and students are being graduatedin ever greater numbers who can neither read nor write nor think with anything approaching the average capability of their regressive ancestors. We see them now moving up the rungs of business, technology, politics, the military, and to some extent applied science, with less grasp on reality and an even more dwindled consciousness of themselves than was the case with their immediate predecessors - who, God knows, had scaled the pinnacles of a barbarism one might appraise as sublime in its unlikelihood. This we are not only perpetuating but intensifying, judging from the nature of our conscription - which is how modern education is basically conceived.

I acknowledge the temptation of slipping into the Cassandra mode of discourse. It is easy to decry and condemn and to prophesy disaster, not only easy but alluring. But I have to run the risk because if we fail to discern the barbarous effect our educational system is having on the current generation of students, and will continue to have in the future, and if we neglect to "reconsider our priorities" and bring pressure to bear on our professional educators and the controlling ministries to rethink the pervasive technological model on which teaching and learning are predicated, then we are acceding to the construction of a society in which the human spirit will be undermined and oppressed in ways more sinister because less obvious than were envisioned by popular eschatological writers like Zamyatin, Huxley, Orwell, and Burgess. The recurrent SF fantasy of the world taken over by robots, as in C apek's epochal R. U. R., and the fashionable apprehensiveness concerning the spectre of genetic engineering, are both misplaced and exaggerated representations of the more abiding and dangerous reductivism fostered by modern educational attitudes, curricula, and methodology.

To return to my five honored teachers. Each had in his own way and in his chosen field reached that level of attainment and comprehension that is denominated mastery. But each, again in his own way, enjoyed the aureole of personality, the mysterion which is both indefinable and unmistakable, and which, though it cannot be acquired, may nevertheless be cultivated and perfected.

Mr Warner was insightful and commanding. Mr Small exuded power and discipline and an immense self-confidence which neutralized opposition and, placed in the service of a salutary ideal, was able to break down obstinacy while stimulating the will. Professor Braithwaite was kindly and absent-minded, yet accomplished by a mixture of gentleness, erudition, and noblesse oblige what his precursors achieved through vital excess. Professor Furey dominated through intellectual rigor linked with an ineluctable politeness; it was as if in his official view of the cosmos, congenial lethargy and mental torpor simply did not exist and therefore we had no alternative but to try and live up to his cognitive expectations. How could one be a dunce if such a thing were merely a figment or a mirage? And Professor Kvajek was the prototypical Renaissance man, the Leonardo of the academy, with an octopal grip on a dozen different regions of endeavor and scholarship: witty, inquisitive, encyclopedic, and refreshingly fallible in his espousal of idiosyncratic doctrines. We could argue with him and feel we had scored a point or two; he would inevitably win, of course, but he saw to it that it was never by a knockout.

What, then, did these five teachers have in common? They were all mentors, assured, influential, intensely individual to the point of eccentricity. They were exceptional men because they provoked emulation while eschewing derivativeness. The student who found himself mentally ignited tended to copy, not them, but their example. They were intellectually austere and tended at times to exhibit a monastic discipline and rectitude although their private lives might be troubled by the breath of chaos or even by moments of weakness. But they abided honorably by the text. They were all accessible, some immediately, others only if the student survived his initiation - but their accessibility was the kind that implies interior amplitude and a generous fortune. Hospitality is always enhanced if one possesses the means to entertain or the milieu in which to offer it. Otherwise such courtesy may come rather cheaply, like that of a minister I once met at a hotel who had the irritating habit of clapping the diners on the back and urging them to "enjoy" the meal he had not provided. Hospitality requires some sort of premises and some sort of outlay, and this is what I mean by spiritual accessibility - to be invited into an interesting, perhaps comfortable, possibly spacious house in which the sideboards creak with steaming casseroles, flagons of wine, and boxes of good cigars. Genuine hospitality, of course, may involve no more than a glass of water and natural courtesy, but the good teacher sees to it that his native magnanimity is underwritten by abundance. And finally, they were all authentic no tricks, no peacock inflations, no windy rhetoric, no psychological compensations for timidity, suspected failure, or professional bitterness. They flourished in the work, not in the perquisites or the reputation, and upheld a standard of excellence by demanding more of themselves than they did of their students. And the fundamental modesty that underwrote their pride of accomplishment was evident in the fact that they expected to be surpassed, not merely equalled, by their students.

Thus, whatever else "personality" may presuppose, it comprises the qualities of mentorial individuality, intellectual austerity, spiritual accessibility and amplitude, and personal authenticity - attributes which cannot be acquired and which will not stick to the strips of pedagogical velcro a teacher picks up at Training College or from the manuals. But it is precisely these qualities, along with mastery of the subject, which makethe "good" teacher, the one we remember as having made a difference to us, as having changed us, and to whom we are perennially grateful and respectful. Which is to say, the one who educated us.

We are now in a position to distinguish between education and training.(6) Training involves the storage of skills and techniques as well as the development of habits and dispositions, which can be reproduced on demand, and is therefore essentially reactive. The accent falls on problemsolving. Education may include training but inevitably transcends it since education is a spiritual transaction in which the personality is modified and its capacity for experiencing the world is accordingly enhanced. Education involves a change in consciousness, a metanoia, in the direction of curiosity, sympathy, and richness of differentiation. It is essentially responsive. The accent falls on awareness of mystery, Keats's "wakeful anguish of the soul," and on the building of a self which by definition must be literate if it is to discriminate and connect. The difference between training and education, to put it tersely, is the difference between aptitude and attitude, between focus and perspective, between (in Gabriel Marcel's terminology) problem and mystery. Owing to the profound disparities in both social dispensation and individual ability, the dichotomy has always been with us and is most likely unhealable. But what is unique to our age is the deliberate attempt to exalt training at the expense of education and to view the latter as a progressively untenable luxury. As a result educated people are now considered as anomalies, as refugees from the past, delicate, vain, and effeminate. And so barbarism encroaches once again and the cultivated personality, besieged and encircled, cowers behind its last bastion of defence: practical literacy. For the barbarian still has a rudimentary soul and as long as he can be made to feel guilty or uneasy about his lack of grammatical facility, the disbenched teacher may continue to eke out a precarious and parasitical existence as a lexical engineer. Or, to change the metaphor, he increasingly comes to resemble the eloquent but unsightly Cyrano repairing the stammering speech of the handsome but rather primitive Christian de Neuvillette who, let's face it, is going to get the girl.(pp27-34)