So imagine that you’re nineteen years old with a place at Duke University to read American literature. And you sign up for an unusual course, one that promises to dispense with all the traditional and orthodox methods of teaching. You find yourself being sent to Toys ‘R Us with your teacher, and told to pick out one toy to bring back to class where you’ll write about what the experience ‘brought up’. You play pictionary in some lessons, and you go on lots of trips, to the beach, to historical sites, in order to bond with your classmates. The whole point of this is to improve class discussion, to get students in touch with their emotions and to teach them ineffable truths about life. What would you think of this? Would you like it?
I’ve been reading Jane Tompkin’s memoir-cum-polemic about education, A Life in School; What the teacher learned. Tompkins spent most of her life chasing the top jobs in academia before having a revelation about her teaching. Physical symptoms – stomach aches, migraines – had dogged her entire educational career, whether as a pupil or a teacher, and she realized that terror of authority lay at the root of it. As a child she had been scared stiff at the thought of making mistakes and earning disapproval. As a teacher she had been afraid that her authority would be insufficient, that she’d be called out as a fraud. Having lived through the advent of feminism, which altered her thinking profoundly, it is only natural that she would want to enact some upheavals of her own with regard to power structures. And so she began experimental teaching, with the intention of removing the barriers of authority between her and her students, and of removing all vestiges of unwelcome expertise from the learning process.
In theory this sounds okay, sort of. But when Tompkins described what happened with one of her courses, I have to admit that it made me extremely annoyed. Let’s return to that trip to Ocracoke, intended to aid understanding of Melville’s Moby Dick. Tompkins wants to make it sound idyllic. ‘Rum and cigarettes. Swimming before breakfast. The delicious mixture of omelettes and literary language. Tumbling in and out of cars, restaurants, the group feeling, beach beauty.’ But there is trouble in paradise. On the way home, feeling tired, Tompkins berates her students angrily for stopping off at MacDonald’s. ‘I don’t normally impose my vegetarian beliefs on others, but in this situation, out of its hiding place, comes the desire to rule, comes the need to be right about something.’ As you can see, Tompkins is an honest writer, but throughout the narrative, she is not wholly honest with herself. It turns out there are things the students have done that she didn’t like – some stayed up late smoking dope on the beach, a married student flirted with another student. Trying to pretend she has no authority over them, no criticisms to make, that irritation forces itself out in a displaced way.
At the end of the course, a course which she felt was fantastic, the criticisms of the students shocked her. They said the course was too unstructured, the discussions too unfocussed, they spent too much time planning and arranging, there was not enough connection between the aims of the university and the course. Tompkins was shattered and did not hide it. She admitted that she had wanted too badly for things to go well – ‘there were sixteen different experiences,’ she writes. ‘At the time, though, the only one I wanted to acknowledge was mine… I was happy, so that was the only story I wanted to hear.’ But for all her transparency, Tompkins is again strangely resistant to making the links between emotional life and learning. ‘I still want to know why the students couldn’t see how great they’d been,’ she claims. But the next paragraph begins: ‘I’ll never know the answer to these questions. But I feel it’s OK not to know. To just go on and let the experience be… When you teach like this, you don’t know what failure is anyway, or success.’ It seems extraordinary to me that a teacher would refuse the perfect educational opportunity offered to her here – to make sense of what occurred and to improve on it.
Just as love and hate are counterparts, not opposites, so dictatorship and anarchy are two sides of the same coin. Neither deals with the problem that is authority. Now I agree that education is often too heavily weighted on everyone thinking the same things and toeing the same line. And that higher education is the right place to help students find themselves and challenge all the truths they have been given so far. But if Tompkins thinks her classes are free from authority, she can think again. It is very clear from her account that there is still a ‘right’ response that she wants from her students, only one that is emotional rather than intellectual. In fact it’s worse, because when they give her the ‘wrong’ response, she is personally shattered. This is why teachers cannot be their students’ friends. Friendship requires a mutual emotional transaction, so it does not leave the students free to have authentic emotions, no matter what they are, and then consider them. Tompkins decides that the course must have been successful because several of the students contacted her afterwards, inviting her to coffee and lunch. But to me this speaks far more of her neediness towards her students than any educational gain. In fact, I felt the whole book spoke of her fundamental need to belong – first of all to the teaching establishment in authority over her, and then to her students in later life. Education can be about this, it can be a way to belong to a school of thought, a theory, a strata of society. That’s why it’s often a haven for the unusual, unpopular child.
I don’t think that teaching can ever be free of authority, and I think it’s much more important to use it wisely. Authority in itself is not a bad thing and it’s real and intrinsic to the learning process. Authority is there to counteract the piggy part of the self, the part that wants nothing more than to wallow in muck, doing nothing, staying stubbornly inert and apathetic. The only ways around the piggy part are terror and passion, themselves two sides of one coin. In a school environment, as in the parental one, it is often much easier to inspire fear. But there are other ways we need authority. If we lived in a world that had no experts, no superior knowledge, no especially wise people, no one to turn to in times of crisis and perplexity, what an intolerable world it would be. Students need teachers to have authority – they want to be reassured by it and inspired by it as much as frightened by it. Good authority is benign, caring and calmly indifferent. If you have some emotional distance from your students, whilst being firmly on their side, then it is not difficult to respond usefully to their difficult emotions – anger, frustration, bewilderment. To my mind, that is exactly what teaching is all about – being responsive to the other person, using one’s authority over them to provide a safe, holding environment in which they can experience their emotions and thoughts and be taught how to deal with them. And literature is a perfect place to do this, because it offers the safest place possible to consider the most difficult and taxing of issues. Students can discuss their experience through it while remaining private, dignified, and always in control.
I had to stop and think about why this book made me so mad, when I did have sympathy with Tompkins and what she was trying to do. I suppose it boils down to the fact that as a reserved person myself I would have loathed to have a teacher wanting to know all about me, forcing me into extrovert emotional responses I didn’t even want to have on my own. Again, I think teaching is about recognizing what students need, and giving them what they are capable of taking on. That means no prescriptions, no absolute theories, no fixed agendas. Neither pure authoritarianism nor the total absence of rules and directions. Instead something recognizable, structured, but constantly questioning itself. Worshipping pure knowledge or pure experience is no help to internal growth at all, but learning how to transcend both, in a way that challenges them, understands them, analyses them, and constructs a holistic view of ourselves in relation to our own lives and to the lives of others – now that’s an education.