5.02.2015

The Impossibility of Teaching

Socrates, of course, says we never actually learn anything. It's impossible, he claims. How can we even ask a question, get a foothold, about something we don't know? It's absurd. If we can wonder about it, we know it. If we don't know it, we can't know it.

And so he claims all learning is remembering. It seems we once knew everything and have since forgotten it, what with the trauma of birth and living in these absurd bodies and all.  And yet, somewhere in us, are the memories of all things, of truths and such. For Socrates, the teacher's job is to help you remember, a mid-wife (his words!) of truths that already are.

Kierkegaard gets all this but thinks it's the way of the ancients. The modern way to learn, says Kierkegaard, is not through memory buy through repetition. Where the ancients lived backwards, the moderns live forward. Repetition, Kierkegaard cryptically and beautifully tells us, is memory only lived forwards instead of backwards. Jesus, not Socrates, offers the modern pedagogy — says Kierkegaard. With Jesus, you are reborn as another person: you repeat yourself.

But how does he, or He, do that? What is learning and, even stranger, what is teaching?

Well, Jesus as teacher comes to you and says, "I am the eternal God." It's a strange moment. Here's this skinny Jewish dude, probably smelling less than fresh, nothing particularly compelling about him other than he says these outrageous things.

But the question is: What do you do? You can surely turn away, ignore the lunatic, muttering to yourself, What a freak! Or you can believe. You can make this absurd, absolutely ungrounded move, and say to yourself and the world, should it ask: This little, malodorous hebe is the eternal God. I believe this.

The presumed modern way is to ask for proof. But to ask for proof is to miss learning all together. Proof is the end of discussion, the end of teaching, the end of learning. Proof is what is self-evident. But, alas, truth is not like that. Truth is not self-evident. Truth is relative and slippery and mysterious and ungrounded through and through.

It would be quite convenient if learning was simply a matter of hearing the right things. Oh, you're God, cool! Thanks. And, voilĂ , you've learned.

But learning is not like that. Learning asks something of you. It asks, it demands, that you make a move — internal and external — into a different existential space. It demands that you be rearranged inside out so that, now that you know this or that, you are no longer the same person. You've been reborn. You've repeated yourself.

What does Jesus do to get you from here to there? He poses a problem. He doesn't try to get you to remember. He doesn't poke and prod at your well held truths until they collapse, as Socrates does. No, Jesus presents you with a living, breathing moment of decision: Do you believe this or not? To believe demands a fundamental reordering of how you see and think and feel the world. To not believe is to continue as you've been doing. What do you do?

This is always the demand of learning, whether it's calculus, philosophy, reading, or God. To understand the calculus is to understand that life is, or can be, shapes in motion, infinitely becoming and differentiating themselves. To understand Nietzsche is suddenly to understand, to see, that life is all a surging, a health, a will to power. To learn something is to take a leap into a new way of being, to overcome the diffĂ©rend — the irreconcilable gap between who you are now and you're about to become. There's no proof to be had. You either leap or you don't. You make the move or you stand still.

But what of the teacher? What is she to do? Can she just push you across the gap? Shove knowledge into your body with sheer force, with foot and will? Clearly, her job is not to convey knowledge. That's what the internet is for. Any moron can look up facts. The teacher's job is something else all together.

The teacher is not there to remind you of something you already know. And the teacher is not there to learn for you, to make you learn or understand. That's absurd. Everyone learns alone; it's an internal movement. So the teacher's job, it seems to me, is to create the conditions for others to make this internal movement on their own. This can be unsettling, such as when a skinny smelly Jewboy says to you: I am the eternal God!

The teacher is a cog, yes, but not a conveyor. The truth does not travel on the body, in the words, of the teacher. No, the teacher is a facilitator of conditions, of opportunity, making it possible for students to make a leap which they inevitably must do on their own.

When they get across the abyss, the words the teacher was speaking will be different. They may not even be familiar. All the teacher does is create the space for the internal movement of the student. Where the student goes, what he does, is his business. And it inevitably goes astray. Teaching is not the laying of a path. It is not the conduit. It is an element within the creation of the conditions.

To teach is not to convey this datum from here to there. It is not a singular trajectory. It is the co-creation of an environment of multiplicity, of possibility. As the teacher, you say things, you do things. As a student, you hear this, do that. It is not a one-to-one correspondence. It is many-to-many. What the teacher says is multiple, as multiple as a life. What the student hears and does, the way he makes sense, is multiple. And there are multiple students, all making their way as they will.

So what is the moment of learning? What is the moment of teaching? It is not singular and happens in its own time. One day, I might lecture about rhizomes. Sixteen years later, a student might find himself as a distributed root system. Or not. So it goes.

When I think about it, I don't understand how learning takes place and, what's more, how a teacher is to teach. The demand seems surreal, impossible even. And yet it happens. Teachers, rare for sure, are able to forge these spaces of emotional, affective, and intellectual possibility, these places and circumstances in which students are able to transform themselves, to be transformed, to see and think and feel and be anew.

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