As I nervously prepare for another first day of teaching, I am reminded of Michel Houellebecq’s spiritually-exhausted, andropausal, soon-to-be-Muslim convert, Francois, in Submission. As a Huysmans’s scholar who cares only for his research (and online porn and TV dinners), he admits, “I’d never felt the slightest vocation for teaching–and my fifteen years as a teacher had only confirmed that initial lack of vocation. What little private tutoring I’d done…soon convinced me that the transmission of knowledge was generally impossible, the variance of intelligence extreme, and that nothing could undo or even mitigate this basic inequality.” At beginning of every semester, I wonder if this is the semester in which students will see through my ruse; if this will be the semester in which they will see that I lack a true vocation for teaching.
I wonder, too, as such is the natural state of man, if this is the semester that I will publicly confess that modern academia is broken. Educational practices rest on a proper conception of man; without such a foundational conception, any attempt to draw out what is inherent in a person will be doomed to a fumbling futility, usually at the taxpayers’ expense and at the cost of the irretrievable time of children. What is the proper of end of education? Well, all that depends upon what we believe is the proper end of man. If a person is nothing beyond what he/she can contribute to society, then the educational regime that needs to be instituted is one through which a person will be trained to function as the smoothest, most compliant cog in the system. The commissars of this educational “vision” find their success to the degree that agency and self-learning and wonder are depleted from–if not made inaccessible to–students. This is the current educational paradigm. What can I do with those who have suckled at the teat of Mother Government for twelve years? Demand that they suddenly eat steak and potatoes with a father they have never met? Likewise, if education is nothing more than an extension-filling exercise of the ego, then what is the point in demanding that students take courses that will challenge, infuriate, and frustrate them? Courses that may ruin their career-dependent 4.0 GPA? Courses whose value they may not recognize for years–if at all? Why demand that they learn to dine in public if eating in front the computer is all they want?
The smart students do not need me; they simply need the conferring accreditation. The others, label them what you will, will not profit, truly, from anything I can offer. Perhaps I can relay a much-needed word of encouragement or provide a strategy for temporary success, but I doubt that I am equipping them with the academic tools that they need–tools that they have been told their entire lives to avoid and to leave to the experts.
Why do I continue to teach? Am I really an example of those-who-can-do, but-those-who-cannot-teach? I often suspect this. Graham Greene once wrote that a writer’s default emotional frame is that of thinking that one never does anything well. At least Graham got published and is now recognized as one of the most insightful writers of the twentieth century. I cannot help but believe that any slightly self-aware teacher must realize that there is little we can do–and what we do is usually not done well.