Teach Me Tonight
The Green at Dartmouth College, 1800s
by Jeremy Fernando
One thing isn’t very clear, my love
Should the teacher stand so near, my love?
Every so often — and with seemingly increasing regularity — our news feeds are inundated with what can be loosely termed sex for grades scandals, where a university professor has, where professors have, been accused of inflating a student’s grades in exchange for sex, and occasionally even a slew of expensive gifts. Leaving aside, perhaps at least momentarily, our judgment on the morality of such relationships, what has been brought to the fore is the question of the relationality between a student and a teacher.
Which is also a question of: what does it mean to teach, alongside, what does it mean to be a teacher?
A common critique of said professors is that they have abused their positions as teachers: for even if love might have been at play — as some involved have readily testified — the professor should have known better.
Which translates to: one’s position as a professor means that one is above mere feelings.
We see this logic play out each time a person in public office falls from grace: what they are accused of is falling prey to their own desires as humans; regressing from one who adopts a particular position, role, to merely being a person. The other, related, critique is that a teacher is supposed to be impartial: that grades are awarded on merit.
In other words, (s)he should be able to become non-human.
Whether this is realistic or not is beside the point: the fact that the public continues to be shocked each time this happens suggests it is a fantasy that is expected to be maintained. Perhaps this is why we tend to be harshest on the ones who call themselves ‘public servants’: their fall from grace only serves to remind everyone else that if the alleged best that was on offer is that bad, what more everyone else; and even worse, what more ourselves.
What more if the one being judged is a teacher: a figure that is supposedly highly regarded.
All of which are valid sentiments of public opinion, outrage even — if only they did not miss the point.
For, one must never forget that the role of the teacher is distinctly anti-public, anti polis. As Socrates reminds us, the role of philosophy is the corruption of youth — not by turning them away from what is good, but by opening the love of wisdom, by opening thought, thinking, questioning, in them. And love in the specific sense of philia: two-way, in-relation-with, whilst never claiming to fully know another, whilst being open to the possibility of the other. Which suggests that this is a relationality that is reasoned, reasonable, within the boundaries of rationality; but always also open to the unknown, to the potentiality that is unknowability. For, we must try not to forget that even though this is a relationship of love, it is not totally haphazard: it involves craft, discipline, tekhnē.
However, even as it is not completely reliant on chance, Socrates teaches us that wisdom only comes to one from elsewhere, beyond; only comes to one at the point where the daemon whispers in one’s ear. Which means that even as one can attempt to teach another, that even as one might be able to be taught, teaching is limited to the manner in which one might approach wisdom, and not wisdom as such.
And if teaching, alongside learning, involves an approach, this suggests that it requires practice; that it is through constant repetition that one potentially begins to develop the skills required to open oneself to the possibility of the whisper. At the point when one hears the daemon, it is the craft that becomes art — nothing is said of the craftsman. There is no artist — only the gestures of the possibility of art.
At the point of wisdom, there is no teacher — only gestures of the possibility of teaching.
The teacher can only guide, lead the ones being taught. For, it is not a direct transference of information, or even knowledge, but a leading by example; where the habits of the teacher — and by extension the teacher’s habitus — is the very site of the teaching.
Thus, the teacher and the student are in a relationality — and the site of teaching, learning, is on, and in, their very bodies. Which might be why Martin Heidegger teaches us that, “the real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than — learning. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by ‘learning’ we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information. The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they — he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. The teacher is far less assured of his ground that those who learn are of theirs.”
Which brings us back to where we began, to the most important point — that of love. And, the fact that love is the very condition of learning itself.
Perhaps then, the only accusation that is valid (assuming, of course, consent and legal age) is that the professor is being unprofessional. Not because it is a charge, but precisely because that is what a teacher should be, that is what one should be taught to be: an amateur.
To be one that loves, to be one in love (amore).
Keeping in mind that love is always risky — it is never safe, and one opens oneself to its dangers. And, if love is the premise of learning, of teaching, one should bear in mind that teaching, learning, quite possibly always already entails a fall — where the ones involved potentially do what they otherwise might not have, perhaps transgress not just mores, norms, but their very selves.
Where to be in love is to open oneself — with all that it entails.
Which is not to say that teaching always entails sex, or expensive gifts. Far from it. For, discernment, choice, saying no, is a mark of intelligence.
However, just because we discriminate, select, does not mean that we are not open to possibilities, does not entail an a priori dismissal. For, an intelligent choice can only be made after considering, consideration, after a certain care is taken to think — which means, only after the possibility that one is open to something, to someone, is first considered.
Thus, a categorical dismissal of the potential relationality between a student and a professor is to make teaching a mere profession. Which is not just to sterilise the one who teaches — it is the devastation of the possibility of thought itself.
About the Author:
Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy, and the media; and is the author of Reflections on (T)error, The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death, Reading Blindly and Writing Death. Exploring other media has led him to film, music, and art; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong and Singapore. He is the general editor of both Delere Press, and the thematic magazine One Imperative; and a Fellow of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.