Monday, June 27, 2005

Steiner's Pedagogy

George Steiner's Lessons of the Masters is an intimidating frolic of allusion and erudition through the history of teaching. More accurately, it is a history of powerful teachers and their disciples. A list gives the flavour of the book, as it ranges through Socrates, Jesus, Plotinus, Virgil, Kafka, Husserl, Abelard, Heidegger, Alain, Schopenhauer, Boulanger, Feynman, and Popper.

The stories are entertaining, but I'm not sure what we are supposed to learn from them. Steiner's cases are badly chosen for the question with which he begins:
What empowers a man or woman to teach another human being, where lies the wellspring of authority?
For each of Steiner's teachers, this has a short, if somewhat inscrutable answer: genius. Not much use to the rest of us, though. (And I do worry, quite sincerely, about my authority to teach ethics.) As we go along, the question is mostly dropped – the writing is anecdotal, not argumentative. This is not a book about how one should teach. (Steiner belongs to the school of the "Great Man".) Nor is it about (or for) the anxieties of the new professor. Its denunciation of failure is severe:
Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, consciously or not, cynical in its merely utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by the roots. Bad teaching is almost literally murderous and, metaphorically, a sin.
If you feel accused by this, or threatened, an obvious response is to impugn the pedagogy of the work itself, to savage Steiner for his presumption. To that extent, this review is suspect. But I protest: I liked the book very much.

One of its best problems is inherited from Socrates, as critic of the Sophists: "How is it possible to pay for the transmission of wisdom, of knowledge, of ethical doctrine or logical insights?" Steiner's reaction is, however, peculiar:
How can a vocation be put on a payroll? [...] This question has haunted me and left me uneasy during my whole life as a teacher. Why have I been remunerated, given money, for what is my oxygen and raison d'être? [...] By what oversight or vulgarization should I have been paid to become what I am?
I don't object to the conceit of this, or even quite to its unworldliness. I am glad that Steiner cannot believe they pay him to do this, and I sometimes feel that way myself. But it mis-conceives the difficulty that money was supposed to make, which is not that it is crass, or that it drags the scholar into society (where else should she be?) but that it makes consumers out of students. If I am paying to be taught, then I want to be taught what I'm paying for – and don't I have a right to be? But then the very project of education is under assault, and the question of authority (by what right does the teacher decide what to teach, and how to teach it?) takes a disturbing turn. This is part of an argument for public education, and a reason why the institutions of learning face a constant pressure to become more cynical and utilitarian, to "tear up hope by the roots" and so to diminish what they mean to serve.


Anonymous Peter said...

The standard economic model implicitly assumes that consumers, suppliers and products are independent of one another. But observe that, strictly speaking, students are more than consumers of an education, they are also its products. Thus does the standard economic paradigm fail when it comes to education, whether publicly- or privately-financed. (As it does, BTW, in healthcare, where consumption decisions are made by the suppliers of healthcare, the doctors, more often than by consumers).

2:23 PM  

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