(Eros is and always will be a part of teaching/learning... we are trying to get our students to fall in love with the idea of learning and thinking as a lifelong romance ... we talk in poetic language and encourage romantic discourse... highly charged discussions of concepts and ideas... and we desire for our students to question their own received beliefs and explore new cultural meanings ... are we seducing them away from the comfortable life of blind acceptance of things as they are and always will be? Thanks to Teresa Webb who sent me this essay.)
Love on Campus: Why we should understand, and even encourage, a certain sort of erotic intensity between student and professor
By William Deresiewicz
The American Scholar
That is why, for the Greeks, the teacher’s relationship with the child was regarded as more valuable and more intimate than the parents’. Your parents bring you into nature, but your teacher brings you into culture. Natural transmission is easy; any animal can do it. Cultural transmission is hard; it takes a teacher. But Socrates also inaugurated a new idea about what teaching means. His students had already been educated into their culture by the time they got to him. He wanted to educate them out of it, teach them to question its values. His teaching wasn’t cultural, it was counter-cultural. The Athenians understood Socrates very well when they convicted him of corrupting their youth, and if today’s parents are worried about trusting their children to professors, this countercultural possibility is really what they should be worried about. Teaching, as Neil Postman says, is a subversive activity — all the more so today, when children are marinated in cultural messages from the moment they’re born. It no longer takes any training to learn to bow to your city’s gods (sex or children, money or nation). But it often takes a teacher to help you question those gods. The teacher’s job, in Keats’s terms, is to point you through the vale of soul-making. We’re born once, into nature and into the culture that quickly becomes a second nature. But then, if we’re granted such grace, we’re born again. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his mortal soul?
This is the kind of sex professors are having with their students behind closed doors: brain sex. And this is why we put up with the mediocre pay and the cultural contempt, not to mention the myriad indignities of graduate school and the tenure process. I know perfectly well that not every professor or every student feels this way or acts this way, nor does every university make it possible for them to do so. There are hacks and prima donnas at the front of many classrooms, slackers and zombies in the seats. And it doesn’t matter who’s in either position if the instructor is teaching four classes at three different campuses or if there are 500 people in the lecture hall. But there are far more true teachers and far more true students at all levels of the university system than those at its top echelons like to believe. In fact, kids who have had fewer educational advantages before they get to college are often more eager to learn and more ready to have their deepest convictions overturned than their more fortunate peers. And it is often away from the elite schools — where a single-minded focus on research plus a talent for bureaucratic maneuvering are the necessary tickets to success — that true teaching most flourishes.
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.
The truth is that these possibilities are not quite as alien to American culture as I’ve been making out. Along with the new stereotype that’s dominated the portrayal of academics in film and fiction in recent years has come, far less frequently, a different image of what a college teacher can be and mean, exactly along the lines I’ve been tracing. It is there in Julia Roberts’s character in Mona Lisa Smile, in the blind professor who teaches Cameron Diaz’s character to love poetry in In Her Shoes, and most obviously, in Tuesdays with Morrie, that gargantuan cultural phenomenon. Robin Williams offered a scholastic version in Dead Poets Society. But we seem to need to keep the idea, or at least the person who embodies it, at a safe distance. Both Mona Lisa Smile and Dead Poets Society take place in the 1950s and at single-sex schools. Cameron Diaz’s mentor and Morrie Schwartz are retired and dying. The Socratic relationship is so profoundly disturbing to our culture that it must be defused before it can be approached. Yet many thousands of kids go off to college every year hoping, at least dimly, to experience it. It has become a kind of suppressed cultural memory, a haunting imaginative possibility. In our sex-stupefied, anti-intellectual culture, the eros of souls has become the love that dares not speak its name.
To read the entire essay