Discussion on the Mount?

Over at First Thoughts, there is a post titled, “The Lecture Works, and It Always Has.” Although it oversimplifies the issue, it does a good job of bluntly stating the obvious fact that there is something about the art of lecturing that will not soon go away.

I think lectures will endure in human life — they are highly effective ways of communicating, and can be quite beautiful and transformative — but they may be banned from many of our colleges and universities someday. There are many experts out there, especially those who claim to be interested in “instructional development” and alike, who believe that the lecture is morally offensive, a “sage on the stage” bulling pupils into blind submission and boredom.

There is some truth to this caricature. I’ve always said that the only bad lecture is a bad lecture, and there are few things more mind numbing and soul crushing than a really bad, abusive lecture. And, of course, there are hybrid forms of lecturing, too. Even a discussion seminar can quickly transform into a mini-lecture — for better or worst.

The real issue here is not about lecturing outright. It is about a much deeper and more serious set of questions: Should professors profess? Should teachers teach through the art of profession? Do we want sages, priests, parsons, rabbis, oracles, prophets, presidents, elders, preachers, ministers, statesmen, and the rest?

Make no mistake: those who’s worldview finds lecturing morally offensive are not out to kill the lecture; they are out to kill the lecturer.

Thankfully, these people are usually dimwits and fail to realize that they lecture at great length about not lecturing. So don’t be scared and don’t take them seriously. They subvert their own ends by professing about not professing.

*

This is not limited to the Academy.

This extends to all teachers, in and out of schools.

To parents and workers and friends.

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Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher. When he taught, scripture tells us, he usually sat down.

Stephen Webb reminded us last week, at First Things, that Jesus was sensitive to the acoustics of teaching: he preached from a boat because sounds carries better over water. This shows the craft of the lecture, and the need to be aware of the acoustics of the oral profession. It also unites the art of homiletics to the performance arts that work in sound. Music, rhetoric, theatre, teaching.

Even Socrates, Plato tells us, often used the monologue in the midst of his dialogues. There is nothing Socratic about a discussion where there is no teacher.

Today is the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

*

If teaching is an art, then, the teacher must have something to show and offer.

Not all teachers profess through their words. I believe there is room for the silent lecturer, the exemplar. But there is a longstanding tradition in human life to listen to (or read) the words of a professor, one who offers a profession of faith and reason and imagination.

Stories.

The result may not be learning or even the transfer of knowledge. This is the gravest mistake of the those who attach teaching to learning, as though the professor’s vocation is to shovel practical facts and trivia into people’s head. The art of teaching may lead to unlearning or even to confusion and aporia — even the terrible lecture can teach us something.

In the end, the teacher is not there to facilitate learning, the teacher is there to be there. The homilist takes his place, and dwells, reminding us that Christ came not to leave us with instructional updates, he came to dwell amongst us. Jesus wept. Teaching cannot end with pedagogy, it must lead further and deeper into mystagogy.

*

A mentor of mine studied in Rome under the great theologian, Bernard Lonergan. He told me of the day that Professor Lonergan entered the room, a sage indeed, and proceeded to give what would be his best lecture of the semester.

Lonergan spoke five words. “We are undone by love.”

Deeply moved and unable to add to that, the class ended.

  • arty

    I opined, in the comments to the FT post, that what’s at stake in the anti-lecture discussion is that we’ve got to make sure that we talk about doing what we’ve always done, in language that is suitably hip. And I totally agree that what’s at stake here is whether or not professors are going to profess things or not. I’ve been fighting this one out at the level of the ongoing mania for “assessment” where you’re somehow supposed to be able to show, empirically, that students really gained in their respect for diversity or some other bit of meaningless academic b.s., over the course of a class. Aside from the inauguration of a new busy-work regime, it creates this environment where professors don’t profess things. Rather, it tends in the direction of only teaching things whose specific results can be empirically verified/measured. As sort of higher-up version of “teaching to the test”, now that I come to it.

    I’m consoling myself with the thought that after I get tenure, I’ll be able to be annoyingly uncooperative and [probably] not get fired.

  • Jack

    “There is nothing Socratic about a discussion where there is no teacher.”

    You haven’t read the Meno?

    • SamRocha

      I assume you’re referring to the slave boy geometry lesson. If that’s the case, then my point stands. When you move to the later dialogues, where Socrates relies more heavily on long monologues, then the point become even clearer. There are some constructivists who try to adapt Socrates into a constructivist pedagogue, but I find these adaptations very problematic. The paradox of Socratic teaching, however, as you seem to note, is that it is impossible in one sense while being essential in another sense. A careful reading of the Meno reveals at least two different notions of teaching: the one that is impossible (Can virtue be taught?) and the one that essential (The confused Socrates who looks for what he doesn’t know and in THAT process teaches.).

      • Jack

        Teaching what if he doesn’t know what he’s looking for?

        • SamRocha

          This is what Meno asks, after the torpedo fish accusation, and it leads to this second, essential notion of teaching. A teacher isn’t there to to “teach” but the teacher must be there nonetheless, as a companion of sorts, someone to be perplexed by and with.

          • Jack

            In other words, no teacher if the teacher is also perplexed.
            Is Christ perplexed?

          • SamRocha

            In his parables, I think Christ shows an array of wit and paradox, rooting in mystery, leading to perplexity.

          • Jack

            I think He is “leading”, “to bear witness to the truth.”

          • SamRocha

            I think he is *being* a Rabbi.

          • Jack

            That the method(parable) may be obscure, does not mean that Christ, like Socrates, is teaching that you cannot teach or learn. Are you seriously trying to argue that Christ is perplexed?

          • SamRocha

            Are familiar with “midrash,” the rabbinic style of exegesis?

          • Jack

            I’m familiar with the contradiction of the truth being perplexed.

            First things first, “Are you seriously trying to argue that Christ is perplexed?”

          • SamRocha

            The first thing, if we are going to be fair, was you accusing me of not being familiar with the Meno.

            Q: “Are you seriously trying to argue that Christ is perplexed?”

            A: Not in the exact same way as Socrates, but to the same pedagogical effect. The aphoristic quality of Christ’s parables, replies, and gestures, had the effect of perplexing people. It also shows that Christ may not have been as perplexed as Socrates, but he was just as perplexing, perhaps more. For the teachers who are not divine, I think being perplexed is the best way to perplex others well and in good faith, as Socrates shows in arguing that a torpedo fish is not itself numb.

            ps: The point about midrash is important because this method of exegesis is also a method of teaching, which Jesus was surely familiar with, and involves wit, irony, paradox, and, yes, perplexity.

          • Jack

            “The first thing, if we are going to be fair, was you accusing me of not being familiar with the Meno.”

            I thought that was taken care of. Anyway, I was referring to,

            “Soc. I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.”

            And the doctrine of recollection doesn’t overcome the problem.

            “Soc. Some of them were priests and priestesses, who had studied how they might be able to give a reason of their profession: there, have been poets also, who spoke of these things by inspiration, like Pindar, and many others who were inspired. And they say-mark, now, and see whether their words are true-they say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but is never destroyed. And the moral is, that a man ought to live always in perfect holiness. “For in the ninth year Persephone sends the souls of those from whom she has received the penalty of ancient crime back again from beneath into the light of the sun above, and these are they who become noble kings and mighty men and great in wisdom and are called saintly heroes in after ages.” The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever knew about virtue, and about everything; for as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things; there is no difficulty in her eliciting or as men say learning, out of a single recollection -all the rest, if a man is strenuous and does not faint; for all enquiry and all learning is but recollection. And therefore we ought not to listen to this sophistical argument about the impossibility of enquiry: for it will make us idle; and is sweet only to the sluggard; but the other saying will make us active and inquisitive. In that confiding, I will gladly enquire with you into the nature of virtue.”

            Even before you get to recollection, “the soul has learned all things.” Which means at one point the soul did not know, which brings you right back to Meno.

            “Q: “Are you seriously trying to argue that Christ is perplexed?”

            A: Not in the exact same way as Socrates, but to the same pedagogical effect. The aphoristic quality of Christ’s parables, replies, and gestures, had the effect of perplexing people.”

            Once again it does not follow from this that Christ is perplexed, nor that people cannot learn.

            “It also shows that Christ may not have been as perplexed as Socrates, but he was just as perplexing, perhaps more.”

            It does no such thing. Once again, that the medium, in this case parable, is obscure, does not mean Christ is perplexed.

            “For the teachers who are not divine, I think being perplexed is the best way to perplex others well and in good faith, as Socrates shows in arguing that a torpedo fish is not itself numb.”

            I might be misunderstanding you, but are you now also saying that Christ is not divine, besides being perplexed?

          • SamRocha

            At this point you are misreading me out of will or ignorance. You accused me of not reading the Meno, which I teach every semester. And now you accuse me of denying the divinity of Christ. Wow.

            I am saying that Christ was *perplexing*, not that he was, like Socrates, perplexed. This *perplexing* aspect is interesting, I admit, when one considers Socrates’ initial response to Meno when accused of being a torpedo fish, but I am not so sure that that comparison is fair in this case.

            About recollection: the standard modern reading of this theory as having some epistemological or psychological purchase is a severe and blunt misreading of the noetic and ensouled account we find in Plato. There is a raft of serious literature on this, which only leads back to the original point I made about pedagogy being incomplete without mystagogy. Your approach to the entire theory, including your questions and accusations, is off the mark entirely.

          • Jack

            “At this point you are misreading me out of will or ignorance. You accused me of not reading the Meno, which I teach every semester.”

            Many people also “reread” the parables. It doesn’t automatically follow they’re reading.

            “And now you accuse me of denying the divinity of Christ. Wow.

            I am saying that Christ was *perplexing*, not that he was, like Socrates, perplexed.”

            I was asking, but thanks for finally being clear on the issue.

            “About recollection: the standard modern reading of this theory as having some epistemological or psychological purchase”

            Don’t know what you mean here.

            I’m sticking to the text,

            “Soc. I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.”

            “the soul has learned all things”

          • SamRocha

            Your tone, from the outset, has been snarky. I have followed suit implicitly, but at this point I want to be very explicit that, from your notes posted here, your reading of my post and all my comments suffers greatly from a basic inability to read and show the slightest amount of respect to the work of the author.

            Your suggestion that I somehow am not *truly* reading the Meno is the last straw in that progression. Unless you read Attic Greek and understand Plato at level of mastery that would qualify you, formally or informally, as a classicist, philologist, or some equivalent scholar of antiquity, then, I have nothing to gain from this exchange with you as far as the formal elements of Plato or the Meno go.

            At the heart of this post is the idea that the teacher has something to teach, through elenchus, disputatio, or a more formal lecture. Or something else. As the author, I am not an exception to this idea, especially when it comes to the philosophy of education (my area of expertise) which begins, on most people’s reading, with, you guessed it, Plato’s Meno.

            The place of the teacher is paradoxical and even perplexing across numerous sources and examples — none more difficult than Christ the rabbi — but my point in the original quote you took issue with is that none of this paradox dissolves the teacher. To put it theologically, none of this makes God optional. That you are unwilling to see that, or even consider it, detracts nothing from its intent or impact.

          • Jack

            Ok, take it easy.

            “understand Plato at level of mastery”

            ” I am the wisest man in Greece because I, unlike all others, know that I am ignorant.” Socrates

            It goes something like that. What’s there to understand? And do you think that was a translation problem?

            “but my point in the original quote you took issue with is that none of this paradox dissolves the teacher.”

            It does when it comes to Socrates.

          • SamRocha

            Wit, Jack. Wit and irony and subtlety, and the fact that Plato, like Jesus Christ, is being tricky. He is the teacher. See?

            ps: I think you have Plato mixed up with Jacque Ranciere (see: The Ignorant Schoolmaster).

          • Jack

            Even if those things are the case for both, Christ has content to teach, Plato does not.

          • SamRocha

            It depends what you mean by content. I think there is a reading of both that can empty out the “content” and preserve the teacher, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

          • Jack

            Through his wit, irony and subtley, Socrates is expressing that he knows nothing. Not the same for Christ.

          • SamRocha

            I don’t think Plato is teaching that lesson through his descriptions of Socrates. But in both cases, Plato and Christ, I think they first and foremost taught something beyond knowledge: they taught being.

          • Jack

            “I don’t think Plato is teaching that lesson through his descriptions of Socrates”

            see top of thread

          • SamRocha

            Again, among other things, you seem to be confusing Plato, the author, and Socrates, the character. You also seem to be missing the distinction between ontology and epistemology, and the essential order between them.

          • Jack

            Where does Plato say different?

          • SamRocha

            At this point, as the ones before, you are being intentionally obtuse. You do realize the literary quality of the dialogues, right? There is always the difficult task of sorting through Plato and Socrates in the dialogues, which is why classicists and others are so helpful, beyond translation.

          • Jack

            You made the claim. Where is it? To me, like all pagans, they’re the same.

          • SamRocha

            Are you seriously asking where Plato the author says that Socrates is his character? Is that what you are asking me? Believe it or not, the Ancients are quite different. (Enters Aristotle.)

          • Jack

            I am saying they all think the same. There is no substantial difference.

          • SamRocha

            Okay.

          • Jack

            “Believe it or not, the Ancients are quite different. (Enters Aristotle.)”

            Thought thinking itself.

            “Soc. I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that man cannot enquire either about that which he knows……. for if he knows, he has no need to enquire.”

            I don’t see a difference.

  • Steve

    “I’ve always said that the only bad lecture is a bad lecture”

    …what?

    Is this a typo, or are you a fan of tautologies?

    • SamRocha

      I didn’t know one could be a fan of tautologies, Steve, but I suppose I am — I’ve always been fascinated by them.

      But, in this case, that phrase is just a way of making a more subtle point that you seem to be missing: there is nothing bad or good about lecturing in and of itself (as critics of lecturing often imply), it depends on the execution of the lecture.

  • ZKT

    The best lecturers were more confused, curious, and well-read than I was. Yes. Agree.

  • Jack

    “ps: I think you have Plato mixed up with Jacque Ranciere (see: The Ignorant Schoolmaster).”
    Plato, Apology, 21d

    • SamRocha

      Have you read The Ignorant Schoolmaster?

      • Jack

        No

        • SamRocha

          Then I suspect your reply might be a bit hasty. (And, yes, I’ve read the Apology.)

          • Jack

            Hold on a second.

            “Through his wit, irony and subtley, Socrates is expressing that he knows nothing.”

            “I don’t think Plato is teaching that lesson through his descriptions of Socrates.”

            Plato, Apology, 21d And there are others.

            But if Plato is teaching something different, what is it? If Plato is teaching about being, what do you mean by being and where is it?


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