We all have different talents. For example, you might be an expert at identifying birds, while your friend can’t tell a robin from a root vegetable. So what do you do? You sigh exasperatedly, grab your friend’s binoculars, and unleash a stream of invectives informing that hopeless, imbecilic good-for-nothing that her efforts at birding are embarrassing and, what’s more, that she’s a terrible person who’s probably working towards the collapse of civilization – right? No, of course not. But this petulant impatience with others who don’t see things our way is one of the defining hallmarks of contemporary discourse on the Big Issues. If we don’t cut it out, we’ll never solve any of those issues – and civilization itself, along with all our descendants, will suffer for it.
Want to see an example of what I mean? Go to just about any opinion pages, comments section, or culture magazine, and look at how writers and commenters talk about people who stand opposed to them in our society’s perennial culture wars. If you’re the type of person who likes good cheer and colloquy, you’ll be quite disappointed by what you find. If, on the other hand, you’re the sort who goes in for petty drama, or who craves the crude, reptilian emotional rush of combat, then you’ll be hooked.
It should be pretty clear which of these I generally hope for. But this essay isn’t a run-of-the-mill call to be respectful to people we disagree with, or to try to see things other people’s way. Both these exhortations have been coughed up so many times, and by so many apparently clueless and inarticulate people, that they’re meaningless. They are, to nick an idea from anthropologist Roy Rappaport, contentless propositions whose function isn’t to convey actual information, but to anchor people’s general moral sentiments. Saying “respect people you disagree with!” is not far off from bellowing “live the higher life!” or “believe in yourself!” These sorts of sentences, when you peer at them closely, don’t transmit any concrete or actionable information; instead, they merely excite a generalized moral ambition, which can then be shaped into more concrete plans by cultures, relationships, religions, and (if we’re unlucky) the writings of academic ethicists.
So, in the context of the deplorable state of our public dialogue as evidenced by internet comments sections, let me offer something more concrete and actionable than the humdrum call to “respect others.” If we as a culture are going to begin to solve our problems, rather than merely sit around feeling superior to those who are trying to solve them badly, we are going to have to forget about just respecting one another. Instead, we are going to have to become teachers.
The role of “teacher” by definition is rooted in respect, so much so that having to point it out means that something’s already gone wrong. If you’re telling your teachers that they need to respect their students, you’re only a day away from telling them that they need to find other jobs. Teachers – and for the purposes of this essay, when I say “teachers” I mean “really good teachers” – respect their students because there’s no other way to get someone to learn something; they offer respect because respect is essentially the recognition that another person is, after all, another person.
Now, because of this inconvenient but remarkably persistent social fact that students are not you, they’re unlikely to understand things in exactly the same way, or to operate unilaterally under the same assumptions, as you. This means you must pay more attention to them, the students, than to the impressive thoughts crowding your own mind, no matter how brilliant and compelling those thoughts might be. If you’re paying more attention to your bursting need to personify correctness than to the actual person in front of you – who needs to learn what’s correct – you’ve lost everything. You’re respecting yourself, in the small and inconsequential sense, more than the material. And, crucially, to be a teacher is to respect both the student and the material you’re trying to teach.
Ask yourself: in real life, do teachers at the beginning of the semester mock their charges in harsh voices for not knowing, say, how take the limit of a function and calculate a derivative? No – of course they can’t do calculus yet. That’s why they need teachers! To curse at the students for not knowing calculus backwards and forwards before showing up in your classroom is to utterly disrespect the seriousness – and the difficulty – of calculus. If you shout at them for coming to class ignorant of the very thing you showed up to teach, then you have clearly misunderstood your job description.
To put it another way, if you know something and I don’t know it, the important thing is not that you get to be right and I have to be wrong. The important thing is that the truth comes out, even if it’s gasping and wet. The only role your ego, as the teacher, plays in the transmission of this information is in providing a accessibly personal platform for the truth. After that, your job is to get the hell out of the way.
This, I think, is the right attitude with which to approach dialog on Important Matters. If you’re high on combat, or if your self-confidence depends on impressing other people with your exhaustive knowledge of religious doctrine or the history of imperial Japan, you may as well put on your hat and go home. No one is going to learn anything today. But if your real allegiance is to the truth, to ensuring that the precious wisdom that happens to be in your care sees the light of day in the end, you’ll realize that wisdom is like a baby, not like a brick – you bring it to the world by nursing it tenderly, by protecting it from a hostile world, not by throwing it through windows.
Let’s say that your beliefs on the question of religion happen to be the right ones. (I may think this is unlikely, given the extreme abundance of opinions on this subject and the lack of actual study or learning that goes into nearly all of them, but let’s just say you’re the exception to these rules and have actually stumbled onto the Truth.) Now, are you going to convince anyone of your beliefs – are you going do justice to the beliefs themselves, I mean – by taking anyone’s disagreement with you as a grave cosmic error that a:) must be remedied completely, forever, right this very instant, and b:) is definitely a deep moral failing, sort of like serving in the Nazi SS Corps or rooting for the New York Yankees, that must be spotlighted, punished, and made an example of?
No, you’re not. You’re only going to make an enemy. If you’re in the business of collecting enemies, then by all means keep vilifying and assuming the worst of those who disagree with you. But remember, you’re actually right about what you believe, and the world in a larger sense desperately needs the delicate, invaluable truth that you offer – so you’re doing the world a serious disservice by making enemies in the name of that truth. The important thing isn’t for you to be right, or for that idiot who disagrees with you to be punished so everyone can see and laugh. The important thing is the material.
An important caveat: teachers also know that respecting the material means that they are ultimately wrong about the material. By this I don’t mean that a teacher of calculus or religion is factually wrong about matters like how to calculate an integral or when the Council of Trent took place, but instead only that there is always infinitely more to learn from one’s students, and so it is good to cultivate an attitude of radical humility about one’s subject. If a subject is worth teaching, its true dimensions are far beyond the capacity of one person alone to master. Mastery of something as complex as reality takes teamwork – collaboration, in other words, between student and teacher. Is a student having a particularly hard time comprehending integrals? This teaches you something about the nature of integrals. You’ve learned something. Pay attention to it. True inquiry is participatory on all sides.
Instead of marching to the end of this rough-hewn rhetorical road I’ve set off on, let me conclude by making a quick turnoff into the rolling land of philosophical Daoism. Laozi, the author of the classic Daodejing, advocated for wu-wei. Loosely translated, this means something like “doing without doing.” More usefully translated, it means that you can’t be responsible for what happens after you do a thing, or say a thing. You may teach someone something desperately important about religion or math or history. But, after you’ve said your piece, it’s that person’s job to digest it. If your student doesn’t get exactly what you’ve taught, you can’t waste your energy trying to correct her error down to the quick. You have other people who need your energy.
This is why teachers need to respect the material as much as the students themselves. It’s no sign of respect of the material to lie awake at night panicked that someone might not understand what you understand. If you understand something, it’s your job to offer it to the world. It’s the world’s job to take it.
In public dialogue, we’re all both teachers and students. If you’re really so sure you understand a thing, you have to treat others in the public discussion who disagree with you as students who may or may not want to sign up for your class, not as sworn enemies. I say that you shouldn’t treat others as enemies not necessarily because doing so makes the world a worse place, but because it is a terrible way to convince somebody of the truth. And if you really are in possession of the truth, then you need to be confident in it, in its ability to stand against ignorance. If you doubt its ability to stand, then you doubt its truth. Confidence, then, is the calm acceptance that what is true will not be shaken or tottered by what ignorant students have to say about it. A student’s misunderstanding of integrals doesn’t threaten calculus in the slightest. Students are supposed to be ignorant.
As teachers, we humbly offer knowledge. As students, we skeptically accept it. This cycle of humility, offering, and skepticism is where all truly worthy conversation comes from. Stop assuming that ignorance springs from malevolence, or that failure to learn means the failure of all learning, everywhere, and you’ll help that conversation to flourish. And maybe we’ll start getting somewhere on our Big Problems, before it’s too late.