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Curious George

The psuedoprofundity of George Steiner

Feb 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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One in particular that plays through "Lessons of the Masters" is the ample "homoerotic" element in the teacher-student relationship. (Steiner doesn't neglect to emphasize that the relationship can also be Oedipal, but let's let that go, for it is probably best to take up only one cliché at a time.) "In the Platonic Academy or Athenian gymnasium, in the Papuan long house, in British public schools, in religious seminaries of every hue, homoeroticism has not only flourished but been regarded as educative." (Hope you picked up on and enjoyed that lilting reference to the "Papuan long house.") The homoerotic element in teaching derives from the statements and conduct in the "Symposium" of Alcibiades, who attempts (with no luck) to seduce Socrates, illustrating the attraction of the beautiful student to the physically unattractive teacher.

Plato, of course, tended to eroticize a great deal, but I wonder if the sexual component in teaching generally isn't vastly overstated. As a student I felt admiration for a small number of my teachers, and as a teacher I found my heart going out to certain of my students, but on neither side of the transaction, as student or as teacher, that is in the role of beauty or of beast, did it occur to me to hop in the sack with anyone. Hannah Arendt may have slept with her teacher Heidegger, and then returned to his bed much later, but Hannah Arendt, however brilliant she may have seemed as a writer, was a woman of consistently poor judgment outside of books.

STEINER TOUCHES ON THE QUESTION of discipleship but does not go deeply into why some teachers want disciples and some are uninterested in them. He makes only a single mention of F.R. Leavis, the Cambridge don who cultivated followers such that, from the 1950s through the 1970s, one spoke of "Leavisites" with supreme confidence that everyone in lit biz knew what one meant. Steiner touches on Leo Strauss, by way of a mention of Saul Bellow's novel "Ravelstein," but does not go into the phenomenon of the Straussians, a school of political philosophy now in its fourth generation of disciples. An investigation of the school of Strauss, as Steiner himself might put it, is a work eagerly awaited.

The question of writing and teaching is treated in the same glancing fashion. Socrates and Jesus, the world's two greatest teachers, chose not to publish. One used regularly to hear about great teachers--Jacob Klein at St. John's in Annapolis, Frank O'Malley at Notre Dame, and others--who published little or nothing. In some ways, their being above the coarse appetite for print added to their allure.

The question of publishing and teaching seems to me a central one in modern higher education. A professor at Washington University in St. Louis, which is enjoying a vogue just now as a popular school, told me that the genius of the place is in its convincing the parents of its students that it is a great teaching college while making plain to its faculty that it remains a research university: Publish, in other words, or perish.

The split is one that is probably in the end reconcilable. In my own teaching experience, I felt that my being a widely published writer gave me a good deal of such authority as I had with my students. Against George Bernard Shaw's famous apothegm--"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches"--I did, and it seemed to help. At the same time, because I always thought of myself primarily as a writer, I felt myself scamping on the full-time duties of teaching. Most of the great modern teachers have not been active writers. One might go further to say that, as Nietzsche claimed a married philosopher was a joke, so a married teacher is at the disadvantage of not being at the full-time service of his students, as was, for a notable recent example, Allan Bloom, a seldom published bachelor, I am told, who was at the complete disposal of his students.

NO HONEST PERSON can teach other than a scientific subject, music, or a foreign language in a contemporary university without feeling at least a bit of a fraud. As a teacher of English and American literature and of prose writing, I know I felt a complex but genuine inadequacy. Sydney Smith, one of the few writers whom Steiner does not quote, once said that if the culinary arts had advanced no further than those of teaching, we should still be eating soup with our hands. Certainly, no other institution is as inefficient in delivering the good as so-called (always "so-called") higher education, especially in the humanities, where one teaches, say, to a room of thirty students and perhaps nine students really grasp one's meaning.

Anyone who has taught the humanities or history must have longed, at one point or another, as I know I did, to have taught science, or mathematics, or music--subjects where talent and ability show up early and can be tested soundly. Literary talent and skill at humanistic subjects, more often than not, don't come into play until well into one's twenties and sometimes later.

Teaching would-be writers, which I have also done, is an especially complicated enterprise. I used to tell students all that I could not do for them: Give them a love of language, make them more observant, teach them a dramatic sense, reveal the mechanics of wit, and much more. All I could hope to do for them was point out the possibilities in prose style, many of which they were unlikely to be aware of, and where their own mistakes might lie. Not, when you think about it, all that much. I used to end this with a little Zen koan of my own devising: "Writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned."

In teaching literature, there is the question of whether one ought to be teaching what one does in the first place. Lionel Trilling made this point in his essay "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," in which he quite appropriately asked if it is right to inculcate the dark visions for the young of such standard curriculum writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Freud. I felt much the same teaching the perhaps less dark but still difficult Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather to people at the end of their adolescence, who already had enough on their minds, and in their hormones, without having to worry about, say, Joseph Conrad's essential message that we come into the world, live, and die absolutely alone. Does one really need to know this at nineteen?

ONE OF STEINER'S BEST PORTRAITS in "Lessons of the Masters" is of the philosopher and teacher Alain, an original thinker long dear to me for telling a friend of his recovering from surgery that he should give way to his depression, which was only natural after surgery, an insult to the body, but that he mustn't let this depression get him down. Alain felt, as do I, that the real teaching was done not in universities but at the secondary-school level, and he spent all his teaching years at the lycée. Yet Alain's most famous student was Simone Weil, who ended up starving herself to death for political reasons. So much for the far-reaching influence of great teachers.

Not long ago I appeared on a panel in which two women, in a slightly scornful-of-America way, talked about the glories of their education in France and in Austria. "At Gymnasium," one of them reported, "we studied Goethe and Schiller in a most careful way." I had to report that I myself went to a high school taught by mentally disturbed teachers. I added that, in education, America was the land of the second chance. One could be an uninterested student at the grammar, secondary, even university level, and still somehow have the opportunity to acquire a decent education. My own recollection as a student is that, when a professor was remarking that there were seven reasons for the Renaissance, I was wondering why he, or anyone else, would ever have bought so dreary a necktie and then stained it with soup.

Perhaps because I was so mediocre a student I have an abiding interest in famous men who, when young, were in the same condition. Henry James was one: inept at engineering school, a flop at Harvard law school. Having established his incompetence in two fields, he found all that was left for him was to write brilliantly. Paul Válery was another. He was thought especially poor at mathematics, which kept him from a naval career; later in life mathematics became one of his intellectual passions.

As a teacher, I noted many students whom I came to think of as "good at school." The phrase, as I use it, is non-approbative and carries no more weight than, say, "good at soccer." These students have been trained to take tests, to write the A paper, to score high on their SATs. They understand that the first question confronting the college student is what the hell does the professor want. Once they discover this, they deliver it. They may or may not be genuinely interested in books, ideas, culture. But culture isn't their goal--business or law or medical school is.

Among the topics that Steiner touches on is, inevitably, the Internet. "Fascinatingly," he writes, "the interactive, correctable, interruptible, media of word processors, of electronic textualities on the Internet and the web, may amount to a return, to which Vico would call a ricorso, to orality." He continues: "The screen can teach, examine, demonstrate, interact with a precision, a clarity, and a patience exceeding that of the human instructor. Its resources can be disseminated at will. It knows neither prejudice nor fatigue. In turn, the apprentice can question, answer back in a dialectic whose pedagogic value may come to surpass that of spoken discourse."

SOMETHING ABOUT THIS SUGGESTS that Steiner, once again nicely removed from reality, doesn't himself spend a lot of time at a computer. As an instrument of learning, the computer is at best a source of quick information--information, surely he would agree, isn't education--and even here it is often incomplete and frustratingly untrustworthy. The most interesting thing I had heard about education on the Internet comes from a man I know who taught a business-education course through computers. He remarked that he thought it possible to learn on the Internet, but that it is hell to teach on it: answering endless emails from students, feeling the inflexibility of programs that could not be easily altered, having no real human contact whatsoever--all this made, on the part of the teacher, for an excruciating boredom.

Almost all that is interesting in education is lost on George Steiner, owing to his relentless profundity. Paul Válery wrote that "only what is on the surface can have meaning," at least for those who are truly percipient. He added: "Being 'deep,' getting to the bottom of things, is nothing. Anyone can dive; some, however, are caught in the water weeds of their abyss and die there, unable to break free." Here is the perfect blurb for "Lessons of the Masters."

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.