Friday, March 28, 2008

The eros of teaching

William Deresiewicz' "Love on campus" attracted a good bit of discussion in the blogosphere when it was published last summer, but I've not posted about it because (a) I simply don't know how to react to it, and (b) I'm not sure what it tells us about the art of teaching. Deresiewicz offers a compelling cultural studies-like analysis of how popular culture depicts the (male) humanities professor: a useless, demasculinzed, lecherous parasite who enjoys a sense of potency and significance only when seducing his female students.

So far, so ugly. Of greater interest is Deresiewicz' proposal (familiar from Plato's Symposium) that teaching is a quasi-erotic activity that is poorly understood in our culture because we lack the conceptual resources to understand intimacy that is neither familial nor carnal. People should read the whole article, but a few of his choice words say it best:

The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. ...

...the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught. Teaching, Yeats said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket, and this is how it gets lit...

Can there be a culture less equipped than ours to receive these ideas? Sex is the god we worship most fervently; to deny that it is the greatest of pleasures is to commit cultural blasphemy. In any case, how can you have an eros of souls if you don’t have souls? Our inability to understand intimacy that is neither sexual nor familial is linked to the impoverishment of our spiritual vocabulary.

What attracts professors to students, then, is not their bodies but their souls. Young people are still curious about ideas, still believe in them — in their importance, their redemptive power. Socrates says in the Symposium that the hardest thing about being ignorant is that you’re content with yourself, but for many kids when they get to college, this is not yet true. They recognize themselves as incomplete, and they recognize, if only intuitively, that completion comes through eros. So they seek out professors with whom to have relationships, and we seek them out in turn. Teaching, finally, is about relationships. It is mentorship, not instruction. Socrates also says that the bond between teacher and student lasts a lifetime, even when the two are no longer together. And so it is. Student succeeds student, and I know that even the ones I’m closest to now will soon become names in my address book and then just distant memories. But the feelings we have for the teachers or students who have meant the most to us, like those we have for long-lost friends, never go away. They are part of us, and the briefest thought revives them, and we know that in some heaven we will all meet again.

I'm inclined to think that Deresiewciz (and Plato) are correct that great teaching has an erotic element, a kind of fevered grip on the mind. Is it possible to acknowledge this in our present culture without inviting sexual overtones? And it is appropriate or sensible to think that the creation of this quasi-erotic fervor should be what we aim at in the classroom?


  1. Very interesting...

  2. I am surprised at only one comment to this post. This seems a fairly relevant, tangible problem.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!