The School Ritual: Types of Teachers — Observatory

For twenty-first-century Westerners, the importance of communicating is so universal and unquestionable that we would hardly believe in a teaching-learning process where dialogue does not exist. However, thinkers from the East and West have insisted that education without communication does exist, and its power exceeds the practices we currently are accustomed to using. Thus, the primacy of communication in school rituals is questionable. Visions of it pull towards different poles: for some, everything human communicates; for others, authentic communication is impossible; for some, communication allows understanding between humans; for others, people think they communicate but are never protected from deception.

The South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han mentions rituals capable of creating true communities without needing communication among their members. These are rituals where the simple repetition of ancestral gestures forges the shared identity without any mediating message or agreement among its participants. Contemplating the possible existence of such a community, whose strength and internal cohesion set aside the inauthentic, is especially crucial in a world like the current one in which, despite the infinite networks of communication, human beings do not seem capable of creating a genuine community or reaching any lasting agreement.

In education, the ritual model Han describes operates when the teacher merely shows his skills before the student, letting him learn and resolve. The professor starts walking, and it is the student who sees in him an example of what it means to “behave.” George Steiner, too, in his book Lessons from the Masters, reminds us of the existence of teachers who simply act while their students watch and learn. In these cases, the emphasis is on the student and his desire to learn, demonstrating a kind of self-teaching. The guide does not accept questions because there are no answers: all truth is to be discovered, or rather, the student is about to discover it, and if he has questions, the answers seem meaningless, as with the Chinese koans:

“Master, what should I do?”

“When both hands clap, a sound is produced. Now go and try to hear the sound of one hand clapping.”

The student may spend years pondering this riddle.

Through this type of apparent nonsense, the teacher tries to exorcise from the student the idea that the answer to his questions can be found externally. He tries to disorient the disciple to find his own truth and avoid any seduction where the student becomes trapped in the teacher’s personality and renounces his own. There are other amusing examples: In his play Theos, Woody Allen mentions one of those famous riddles: “If a tree falls in the forest, and we’re not around to hear it, how do we know it makes noise?” For my part, I remember the sign that hung over the threshold of a famous bookstore, worthy of the entrance to the highest Buddhist school: “Please do not open or close this door.”

It is almost impossible for us Westerners to imagine a teacher who teaches without communicating; moreover, it is difficult to think of people who are together without at least several messages circulating among them. In a waiting room, two silent people can be “saying” countless things by their physical attitude, manner of dress, or the smallest gesture.

In the middle of the last century, a group of scholars gathered at the so-called Palo Alto School (in California) dared to say something thunderous: Everything communicates. Everything, absolutely everything, whether consciously or unconsciously. From that point of view, the mere fact of participating in a silent and merely formal ritual is a way of expressing conformity with it, of communicating that one agrees that this ritual validly exists. If one is dissatisfied (and if Freud’s theories about the unconscious are truly universal), not even the Orientals could find a way to hide that nonconformity; sooner or later, they would let it be seen (through a lapse, for example). The same goes for the teacher who “educates by example.” Immersed in a structure in which everything communicates, the teacher cannot stop emitting and receiving unlimited messages of any kind, and his attempt to maintain neutrality before the students are fruitless.

I am not trying to dismiss the ideal of a teacher whose unlimited “awareness” makes him an exemplary being, even though he has the slightest intention to be one. Such a case is exceptional. Instead, my comments intend to warn about situations when the student idolizes the teacher as an “example to follow,” and the professor encourages or takes advantage of the occasion for his benefit. Belief in “exemplary teachers” carries risks.

Universal Truths

In the West, the prevailing tradition is that the teacher transmits a common knowledge to all. In this tradition, not everyone finds their truth. The teacher himself receives and transmits knowledge absorbed by all to which it is convenient to adhere. This type of teaching emphasizes the teacher and what he has prepared to say. Such a teacher sets out to transform students to learn what “should be known” and what “should be done.” In this teaching model, everyone arrives at the truth by the same path, so the teacher’s task is to transmit knowledge and train the student in an already -proven skill. To access the truth, the human being renounces most of his attributes and limits himself to his reason. The teacher is the strict guide who knows the destination and admits all kinds of questions as long as they allow advancing towards the pre-established knowledge goal.

The above may sound entirely outdated. However, it is not; moreover, if it were, we should pause a little to think about whether it is convenient for such teaching to disappear altogether. Consider that this type of training has an immense advantage (an advantage that undoubtedly contributed to part of its success in the modern age). In this model, no individual should impose his criterion on another. Teachers are not made to dictate their truth to anyone; the truth is universal, and its call is for everyone. In the teacher/student relationship, any attempt to seduce or be seduced contradicts the shared truth. Political, moral, or scientific laws are beyond opinions and personal relationships; this rule is categorically strict.

The following anecdote gives a good example: In 2015, the Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, Tim Hunt, dared to joke publicly about the idea that women and men should work in separate laboratories because it was not uncommon for them to cry when facing professional problems or “fall in love” with their colleagues, which hinders the work. Immediately after these “funny” comments (and by immediately, I mean before the scientist could return home), the prestigious University College London (UCL), to which he belonged, had already asked him to resign. This story taking a feminist position (in this case radical, but which I share in essence) refers to the unquestionable premise that no individual, not even jokingly, should try to put himself above the universal law (here, the scientific law) that is foreign to any difference between people.

Personal Truth and Social Media

Faced with such positions (which weigh the ideal over the concrete and the general over the individual), our postmodern epoch has reacted by proposing (and even imposing) the existence of individual truths that safeguard personal participation and merits and affirming that universal categories have long since proven ineffective. This position also carries risks. When Byung-Chul Han describes the rituals of a community without communication, he does so by contrasting them with our contemporary reality, in which the existence of individual truths is paired with empty dialogue, where the media, presided over by social networks, practically force the person to listen only to what he believes; thus, their truth ends up just being a talk with himself. The South Korean philosopher speaks here about communication without community, where messages flow between different selves without ever constituting a “we.”

This reality lands in a school model that encourages each student to generate his curriculum, a personalized study program, in which the student ends up believing that he is governed by his own interest when, in reality, he is only learning what the communication system dictates (for example, a social network’s algorithm). It is a new type of loneliness previously seen as madness and is now the most common modus operandi. A joke recently circulating on social media said, “I’m my own boss, so if you see me talking to myself, I’m on a board.” Excellent joke, for sure. The teacher of these future bosses is there only to provide them with the resources they think they need, becoming an external provider to the learning process, which the student mistakenly believes he manages by himself. 

The Teacher Leader

In previous articles, I quoted Erich Fromm’s idea that knowledge acquired through reasoning has a limit, beyond which extends a mysterious space. On this frontier, reason passes the baton to the only human quality capable of transcending it: our capacity for Love, perfectly compatible with the rational. (Karl Jaspers, the German philosopher, speaks of a type of thought that “transcends reason, without losing reason”). From my point of view, in a world as convulsed as ours, the teaching-learning process must be guided by this type of transcendent feeling/thinking, which alone allows it to recompose its essential ingredients and promote personal flourishing and community cohesion among its members.

In this fourth model of teaching-learning (that of a recomposed school ritual), the teacher’s image has particular relevance. To use familiar terms, I refer to the ideal of a teacher as “teacher leader.” In my meaning, this is the one for which school is essentially a game, a playful exercise that prepares us to respond collectively to the inescapable call to truth and follow it “beyond reason, without losing reason.” Learning is always an adventure that carries the human being away from his islands of certainties, so it involves risk; the teacher leader uses all his love to safeguard the integrity of his students in that attempt.

The teacher leader incorporates all the above models when leading the adventure. He becomes exemplary by the simple fact of being authentic, that is, of melding his ways of thinking, feeling, and acting into a coherent whole. Since he has already traveled the path at least once, he knows better than his students what can be expected and explicitly provides them with all the tools of knowledge that he has inherited through humanity. So, always looking sideways for the unexpected, he understands that each person must conserve his capacity for reaction and autonomy. He encourages each student to experience a certain degree of self-didacticism and self-management; however, he never ceases to summon everyone to a single meeting place. Finally (going back to “educating by example”), his best lesson is how he himself relies on communication to move forward. He accepts that believing in the authenticity of others is a risk because the possibility of disappointment is always present, but he also knows that this risk is no greater than that of the human condition itself, which is intended to respond to the call of a truth surrounded by uncertainty. Thus, with his best will, he leaps into the void, trusting that, in the worst case, he will experience wisdom like Oscar Wilde, who let go of perfect knowledge and received the Love of God in return.

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