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From Cognition to Being

Henry Davis McHenry


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1When my son was two and a half years old, our speaking together did not turn on shared vocabulary. Even now, I can explain the virtues of spinach simply, or recommend it eloquently or sternly—in the presence of whatever vocabulary or rhetoric, he sometimes eats spinach and sometimes does not. Nor do his actions always result from hunger or satiety; he has eaten what I offer when full and refused it when empty. When I ask him if he forgives me for being impatient with him, I do not think he understands what it means to forgive someone. Yet he does unmistakably forgive me, then and there. Something in our being together, like a magnetic field, calls him to be in a certain way, and it is the way of our being together that includes his eating or not, that calls forth his forgiveness. The purpose of my book is to contribute to shifting our cultural conversation so that teachers are enabled as inventors of ways of being together. Other professions—medicine, law, engineering—require skillful marshalling of facts, careful planning according to a vast and developing body of experience and knowledge, astute observation and management of people. The profession of teaching requires all this and something more: a willingness, even a drive, to bring into being that colloquy that waits at the deepest threshold of our mortal hearts. Our calling is to hold open the possibility that the human family may be whole, as underneath our exchanges of information, our structured communications, our methodical lesson plans, there comes into presence the certainty that we and our students partake together of the communion of family, and that we can be responsible, as beings in whose destiny the world lies, for the promise and the dignity of that sharing.

2Something of the scope and import of our calling as teachers sounds in the thinking of the eminent Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. His work springs from the conviction that not only literature, but the whole range of human concerns, comes out of our mutual responsiveness. “I live in a world of others’ words,” he says, locating our essential humanity in the always flowing stream of our communion of speech. (In Russian, the word is soobschenie: it connotes joining, sharing, becoming together, and not “communication” or information transfer among discrete individuals in their separate social roles.) For Bakhtin, it is not language that is primary, but speaking and listening—that is, particular instances of “utterance,” which are constructed, he says, not in accordance with rules of grammar and syntax, but in “anticipation of an active, responsive understanding.” When we write, no less than when we address each other vocally, we speak into a listening that conditions our utterance.

  • 1 M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, Caryl Emerson and Michae (...)

3In the case of writing, this dependence of speaking on listening implies that to study a text as if its language had meaning is to miss its “dialogic” nature. As dialogue, as invented utterance, it has power to constitute a part of the life of those who are engaged in it as speakers and listeners. To study text instead of utterance is anti-humane: it is to speak about third parties, rather than with or for each other. And this is justified, Bakhtin says, “only where the integral and unrepeatable individuality of the person is not required... [when one is acting] not as I myself, but as an engineer, a physicist...” Bakhtin does not complete the list of professions that may not require in their performance “the integral and unrepeatable individuality of tire person.”1

4But now suppose, in the case of speech, that one acted as a teacher. How much of my time with students is spent in this third-person role to the exclusion of I myself? Lecturing, leading discussions, giving and grading tests, counselling difficult cases, monitoring study hall...: who am I for the other participants in teaching/learning? What is it to act as a teacher? Bakhtin’s picture suggests that any role, any set of standard activities, can come to substitute for the “integral and unrepeatable” presence of the person in authentic encounter with another person or persons. With Bakhtin, as with Buber, we are moving from the standard conception of a separate individual, who may indeed “play a role,” toward a notion of the person as existing by virtue of responsibility—by virtue of his or her responses to and listenings for other persons. Taking a step along this path, e.e. cummings says this: “We do not believe in ourselves until someone else reveals that deep inside of us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” Here, individuality partakes of mutuality, of encounter; it is the power to enter relationship and thus to touch the world in wonder. Individuality here, rugged or not, is a gift of another’s listening, a creature of Briber’s “living We, the genuine We.”

  • 2 Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (Chicago and London: (...)

5Jacques Barzun puts the point this way: “There is no such thing as the child—at any age. Teaching is not the application of a system, it is an exercise in perpetual discretion.”2 By discretion I take it he means alertness to the very particular relatedness developing from moment to moment between a child or group of children and a teacher. If teachers are trained in their roles, in the application of systems, and not enabled as beings who can engage with students, we will not get enough moments of authentic communion in education to satisfy our craving for genuinely shared being. Nor will we achieve the kind of education most wanted and needed in a world that calls more and more urgently on our essential humanity, our responsibility to and for each other—in a word, on our love. In the classroom sometimes, do we not feel that delicate blend of teaching with parenting, the bringing forth of family?

6As my son gets older I am beginning to notice how few are the times when we actually make intimate eye contact—though an image more apt than “eye contact” would be the old mingled eye-beams, emblem of communion between beings. What we do instead of becoming together, I think, is speak our minds. That is, we give our attention to whatever structure of meaning is currently salient. If I am involved in writing or reading, say, or preparing for class, I have an agenda: my purpose is to complete whatever I’m doing before being with anybody, much less with a small child who demands my unalloyed attention to his every whim. As his vocabulary and command of sentence structure develop, he, too, has sharper tools with which to persist in agendas of his own, so that our interaction becomes not communion of beings but adjustment of agendas. I can usually get the communion to recur by being on the lookout for it—by being committed to its occurring, by putting it in if it’s out. (“Dustin,” I said once, “I need a hug and a look.”) But the experience, if I let myself have it, is always the exact opposite of “getting to know my son.” It is rather a leap into unfathomed waters; a leap away from knowledge, not toward it. In gracious moments, one consciously determines to leave the security and comfort of one’s customary agenda, to interrupt the language that embodies and perpetuates its concerns, to cast off these moorings and set sail. I sow no more profound risk than this sharing, and reap no more exalted reward.

7What is education, then—that quality so precious and rare in schooling? In what cases, in the presence of what kinds of experience, do we want to say “now this is education”? The word points us in two directions by virtue of its etymology and its contemporary associations. From Latin educare, to rear or bring up, we get these definitions:

  1. to bring up (young persons) from childhood so as to form (their) habits, manners, intellectual and physical aptitudes;
  2. to train (any person) so as to develop the intellectual and moral powers generally;
  3. to train, discipline (a person, a class of persons, a particular mental or physical faculty or organ) so as to develop some special aptitude, taste, or disposition.3

8Hence “education” is used to designate “the systematic instruction, schooling or training given to the young in preparation for the work of life; by extension, similar instruction or training obtained in adult age; also, the whole course of scholastic instruction which a person has received.” I asked Dustin once if he knew what education was. He nodded confidently. “It means he has to go to school,” he said.

9So much is familiar—so familiar, in fact, that we may not even see what it says any more. For the standard definitions spotlight one feature of our practice in this area of our common life: education as training, preparation, formation, as transmission and reception of information or technique; this is education as bending to pattern. But is this what we envisioned as our job when we chose teaching as a career? What else is there in our experience of that moment of wonder, elation, and bedrock satisfaction that we knew as students of a great teacher, and again perhaps when we caught an illumination in the eyes of our own students, a light not artificially implanted, or even renewed, but new; a light not of understanding only, but of possibility?

10The other Latin word, educere, means “to lead or draw forth or out,” from which we get the word educe, “to bring out, elicit, develop, from a condition of latent, rudimentary, or merely potential existence.” Early uses of the word suggest its different character, its sense of origination, creation:

1603 The Heauens are efficients, which educe the forme out of the matter of the corne.

1669 Chaos was that ancient slime, out of which all things were educed.

1781 Hope has the wondrous virtue to educe from emptiness itself a real use.

  • 4 Definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary.

11And in 1816, the poet S. T. Coleridge, blending pictures given by the two etymologies, says that education “consists in educing the faculties and forming the habits.”4

12The Latin teacher at my high school says that educere would have been used also to describe the leading forth of an army from the city gates, or of an expedition into the hills. Here, a sense of adventure, of going together into an unknown world, with a purpose and with supporting equipment, but also with a sense of reliance on something else than the already designed equipment, the maps, the provisions. I make it the picture of Ulysses leading his drenched mariners into a world that must be to us, some thirty centuries later, unimaginably new, a world where they invent a way out of the Cyclops’ cave using their native wits and whatever materials come to hand. Ulysses, we are oft reminded, is “a man never at a loss.” He is certainly a leader. Is he a teacher? When Dustin goes to school, as indeed he has to, whom does he encounter? What if education means “he gets to re-invent his world”?

13I have spent most of my career in an ideal teaching situation: small classes, able or brilliant students, committed and caring colleagues. Even here, our diagnosis of student difficulties often faltered. If we could not find any personal shortcomings like Laziness or Preoccupation with the Opposite Sex or Rebelliousness on which to base our findings and our prescriptions, we were led to blame Lack of Aptitude for the Subject—the categories being Native Ability, Motivation, and Diligence. Of course, Native Ability is filtered through influence from the Family Background, and Motivation may come through several channels, though the most important of these is likely to be Parental Guidance, if not Parental Pressure. Diligence, of course, is mostly a matter of the cultivation of Good Study Habits. In my school it was only a few isolated individuals who had difficulty; they were exceptions who proved a rule. But we assumed that they had their problems as individuals. Some people, it seemed, were just wired wrong for our brand of schooling. And if a student was particularly recalcitrant, refusing the extra help we offered, we would say: “Well, you can’t help a person that doesn’t want to be helped.” With this “rule,” among others, we constructed the edifice of our practice.

14Carefully, conscientiously, soberly, we are dealing with our lives together in terms of the known world, the familiar borders, the paved roads. Nothing wrong with paved roads except that, with parking lots and fast-food shops, they leave precious little terrain for pioneering, for making way in. What is there in our building together that gets lost in the built? When asked what she would do to rekindle teachers, Marva Collins says, “Tell them to stay out of the teachers’ lounge in the morning.” Why? What arenas come into being in encounters between educators, and students, and parents? Is it possible to shift an arena, to fertilize our encounters? Can the teachers’ lounge, the faculty meeting—the conversations among educators—be a source not of dysfunction but of breakthrough results for students?

  • 5 I use the term “paradigm” in the sense familiar since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Re (...)
  • 6 Lawrence Cremin, Popular Education and Its Discontents (New York: Harper and Row, 1990), 77.

15What paves roads is a paradigm. A paradigm is the medium of our culture, an open set of beliefs and expectations, open because it faces the future expecting to incorporate into itself whatever arrives. A paradigm gives us a set of attitudes and expectations, parameters that actually determine what we can hear and see, and what we cannot, and it provides us with rules specifying how to operate successfully on what we see.5 To look at it more organically, a paradigm is a cluster of rooted metaphors, a soil from which grows the familiar vegetation—if pavement hasn’t succeeded yet. It is part of this book’s aim to shift the paradigm we bring to teaching and learning, to the training of teachers, and to the initiation of students into education. What is the currently dominant paradigm in discourse about schooling or about education? At the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1989, Lawrence Cremin asserts that individuals must learn “how to obtain the education they would like to have at any given period of their lives.”6 So that even if getting educated becomes continual, self-initiated—even if, as Cremin recommends, students learn how to learn—education itself, identified with acquired knowledge or information or skill, remains a quantity to be obtained, a stuff that individuals have and use. We say of persons and classes of people that they are “highly educated” or “poorly educated,” as if the past participle might accurately represent a completed state of affairs. Incomplete preparation threatens our national destiny: “Only an educated America can promise our country a future in space,” we hear the announcer say. And we applaud the bumper sticker’s retort: “Education expensive? Try ignorance!” Though its stentorian challenge has been answered time and again—by Piaget, by Vygotsky in challenging Piaget, by Dewey—still Thomas Hobbes’ dismal proclamation of this paradigm of education reverberates: “The minds of the common people are like clean paper, fit to receive whatever by public authority shall be imprinted in them.”

16Perhaps even our independent minds receive imprints from authorities of one kind or another—I know my mind resonates to authoritative diction, particularly if it’s metaphorically delectable. Marching to almost any fife, even the one that trills “beware of fife and drum!”, the mind adopts the rhythm and cadence of meaning pronounced in the read or the spoken, and transmits its measure to the hand or voice, which act and react, mechanical in agreement or rebuke. But what of our hearts? And shall I couple soul? What we want is a frontier, an edge beyond which the cadence of the known pauses, its repetition of structured options and impossibilities fading as the voice of commitment, of our responsibility in being for each other, sounds. Notwithstanding the slogan of Star Trek, space is not the final frontier, any more than The West was. Where there suddenly comes into presence the possibility of authentic sharing, of soobschenie, that is where the frontier appears, and reappears, beckoning like the bright crescent of Ithaca. What we want is educere. Even when we present facts, dates, concepts, formulae, our continuing mission is not to imprint: it is to share the adventure of being.

  • 7 As Hirsch acknowledges, it is in any case impossible to require exposure—or at least to require th (...)
  • 8 See Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 73.

17My purpose is not to subvert the traditional concerns of schooling, but rather to renew the background behind them, or better, to notice their ecology. I will not propose that we watch Star Trek on the TVs in our classrooms (though I have observed and participated in classroom activities of less educative import). Instead I will try out another vocabulary in which we might hold “education,” one that gives us a picture more like the “becoming together” of Buber and Bakhtin. By developing this other conversation for the background of our educational practice, I am not claiming to reveal more clearly the essence of “true education.” I am interested in vocabularies as tools, and the conversational tools at our disposal in the currently operative vocabulary of education, though still useful in some ways, are no longer adequate by themselves to deal with our current crisis. I want to continue to be able to talk about knowledge, curriculum, subject matter, course content, examinations, grades. I want all of our students to have the opportunity to share in the heritage of their culture (or better, cultures), though I agree with E. D. Hirsch that such an important purpose is not likely to be well served merely by requiring exposure to items in a content-sequence.7 Thus, I do not propose what Richard Rorty calls a “final vocabulary”8 different from the one we now use. But shared knowledge is at least as much a matter of the sharing as it is of the knowledge. To have an impact on the knowledge shared by a group of pupils or a generation, we must be able to engage the sharing they know. We need another vocabulary, another way of speaking about educational problems and possibilities alongside the canonical one, a system of terms including these: speaking, listening, conversation; inventing, declaring, committing, sharing; and maybe even being. We should be talking about the being of teaching. We will talk about it, in Chapter Six, by reinventing the “wheel of Saying.” In Chapter Seven, we will talk about it with some “terms” that are not verbal but experiential; for the vocabulary of being articulates activity as well as thought. But to begin developing this other vocabulary, to find ourselves talking in its terms, we will listen to the conversations of some of our most powerful recent thinkers—Saussure and Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Buber, among others.

18In Part One we will be conducting the investigation in an arena called epistemology. When we are in this arena we are committed to asking questions about how knowledge is possible and how it can be valid: we are asking how we know what we know. The first modern poser of this question, René Descartes, answered it in a way that has become paradigmatic, inaugurating a way of distinguishing between subject and object that enabled the march of science. In his most influential philosophical works, he proposed a method of authorizing and validating the perceptions and conceptions—the knowledge—of an individual observer. Thus he isolated the Knowing Subject. Less than half a century later, John Locke’s writing nailed down the Object side of the distinction, so that we then had a world composed of individuals and objects that individuals apprehend more or less truly. Knowledge, for us, is inextricably bound up with this picture of subjects over against objects. Though Wittgenstein’s work does not dispute the difference between subject and object, or the difference between truth and falsehood, it asks us to inquire into the conversation in which these distinctions are used, and to notice the sociality of their use; in so doing, it provides us with a bridge into a world where teaching can assume its rightful magnitude, its world-opening touch.

19In Part Two the arena will shift to ontology—though I do not mean by that a division of philosophical thought. Though the word and the arena come to me (most recently) from Martin Heidegger, a philosopher whose massive work is intended to counterbalance the weight of at least four hundred years of scientific epistemology, ontology for me simply means being together with others in a world. When we are talking ontology our interest is in what it is to be present, to and for one another. This does not mean getting along with one another, being sociable, etc. Indeed, it may mean the opposite; it may mean trying each other sorely. I am using “epistemology” and “ontology” to distinguish between arenas that, it seems to me, we usually conflate. For the phenomena of being together are all too often masked by our easy acquaintance with phenomena of knowing together. Thus ontology is a name for a domain of inquiry, an inclination to question, not for a set of answers.

20What I mean by “ontology” suggests itself in all the work of Michael Polanyi, beginning with Personal Knowledge. That tacit “component” that Polanyi identifies in the background of personal knowledge has much to do with the teacher’s way of being, as it has to do also with the listening present in the teaching/learning situation “before” speaking occurs.

  • 9 The Tacit Dimension, 1966, 61.

But if we know a great deal that we cannot tell, and if even that which we know and can tell is accepted by us as true only in view of its bearing on a reality beyond it, a reality which may yet manifest itself in the future in an indeterminate range of unsuspected results; if indeed we recognize a great discovery, or else a great personality, as most real, owing to the wider range of its yet unknown manifestations: then the idea of knowledge based on wholly identifiable grounds collapses, and we must conclude that the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the other must be predominantly tacit.9

21Polanyi affirms the presence in all knowledge of a tacit dimension that conditions our understanding and use of that knowledge. In one way, the tacit dimension is an unspoken bargain struck between the participants about what entities (including themselves) inhabit the world, the ways these embrace and settle into accord or conflict, what is available or fruitful to be said about these entities, what concerns are to be addressed... how the world of the given situation fits together. In another way, it includes the inclination to question, to launch out into the yet unknown.

22The passage above suggests, further, that the authority of what is learned—transmitted to following generations—resides in that tacit dimension. So the job of teaching—and thus of teacher training—is to enable and empower the tacit. We can do so with a vocabulary of being together and inventing that will stand alongside (not replace) the vocabulary of representation and transmission of knowledge that uses us. We want a conversation for commitment or responsibility alongside the vocabulary that acknowledges what is so. I will be exploring what such a vocabulary might look like.

23I am also using the terms “epistemology” and “ontology” as they are interrelated by Huston Smith, in Beyond the Post-Modem Mind (New York: Crossroad, 1982). In Chapter Eight (“Beyond the Modern Western Mindset”), he postulates a sequence in which our modem motivation to control nature produces the epistemology of empiricism and ontology of “naturalism,” yielding finally the lived experience of alienation. That students as well as teachers experience alienation from and in the educational system we have inherited seems clear, beginning at least with the Carnegie Report. Smith proposes that, starting with another motivation—“participation”—we might generate a different sequence, through an epistemology of “intuitive discernment” and an ontology of “transcendence” to a lived experience of “fulfillment” Rather than explicating here the meanings of the terms in Smith’s sequences, I merely note that the purpose of this book is to begin enabling us teachers to shift our motivation toward “participation,” being-together, without losing control of our classrooms.

24How is it that students can divine the answer to a question in class by the way you ask it? At least partially, at least sometimes, you can influence the direction a discussion will take by having students pick up on your intentions, no? Or again: one group of students, presented with a game requiring skill, luck, and participation outdoors, chooses to take it on as a challenge and an opportunity for fun. Another group, in the same class section, stands aside talking among themselves as the others perform. A third group declines even to go outside and watch. Where do the influences come from here? What different worlds are there here for students to live into? And when a student consistently makes an effort but consistently fails, in what world is he or she living? When a student makes remarkable progress, taking on the challenge of schooling as if his or her life depended on it, what world has come into being? What world has been occurring when a teacher burns out?

  • 10 “We ask the questions ‘How does it stand with being?’ ‘What is the meaning of being?’ not in order (...)

25The question that generates the ontology arena is, “How is it that a world comes to be? What is it to be?”10 If we had some acquaintance with that inquiry, we might have some say in the worlds we find ourselves and our students living in. In this arena, the guides will be Heidegger and Martin Buber, a philosopher and a theologian whose works, juxtaposed, allow us to cross Wittgenstein’s bridge into new territory. As you will have surmised, the crossing is supported also by my own children and my students.

  • 11 These are the questions that the philosophical pragmatist asks about any vocabulary that claims hi (...)

26As the continuing presence of my child reminds me, however, it is not in using the same vocabulary, once we develop it, that we gain those moments of being that exalt our lives together. I have had occasion to ask Dustin more than once if he forgives me, and though forgiveness has come into presence on each of those occasions, he cannot define the word. Can I define it? I know the procedure for looking the word up, but the definition is not what is present in our encounter. The definition is like a picture, an explanation of what happened, after the fact. It is a memory of forgiveness. In educational practice, too, the landscape of memory might at some moments be transformed into a listening for inspiration. Vocabulary and grammar alone do not do that—though it is hard to think what they could be, “alone.” But a new vocabulary and a new way of talking do open the door to new possibilities. As they gain a foothold, they present us with the opportunity to ask, “What would it be like to commit ourselves to that vocabulary? What might happen if we used that network of concepts instead? What would the landscape look like?”11 These are not questions that can be answered in solitude. What they require, what they invoke, is colloquy: speaking together. For a new way of talking means a new way of listening, too, so that a new vocabulary can call forth powerful conversation: that turning together, to and with each other, in which possibilities are invented and then realized. In the present case, it is not that a philosophical conversation will do anything to alter the system of instruction we are immersed in. But it will do something to us, and for us. As the sudden vista from a farther ridge opens out, in a new colloquy we may find ourselves inventing new possibilities for dwelling together in the landscape, for owning the landscape of our dwelling. So I am not talking about relevance, either. A classroom is a real world. The cry for relevance is ontologically vacuous; it may even rupture the fabric of shared being, of encounter, since the very notion of relevance presupposes and trades on the divorce between content and lived experience. Relevance is the enemy of teaching.

  • 12 See Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, Turning the Soul: Teaching through Conversation in High School (Uni (...)

27What is a teacher? A standard, if crude, answer might be “the one who knows and tells.12 A teacher communicates his knowledge, and maybe his understanding, to his students; and we listen to the question with this standard answer in mind—we listen from the answer we have already heard. This is the teacher as given in the paradigm of epistemology. Of course, the current cultural picture of what a teacher is derives from perhaps hundreds of antecedents, including cartoons and popular songs. (In Wittgenstein’s terms, the “grammar” of the word teacher is the confluence of innumerable semantic rivers.) In this book, though, I want to focus on what seem to me two powerful expressions of some notions bound into our current teaching and education. The writings of Locke and Descartes, as the source of much of what we have been hearing in the modem age, provide us with a means of distinguishing or noticing the background that shapes our current colloquy and practice, distinguishing it as background, getting a grip on the picture that grips us.

28At the outset, then, our task is to establish an unusual kind of relationship with the pictures that give us our own identity and purpose in life as well as our views of the nature of the world and society—pictures that give us ourselves and our students. Like water for a fish, these pictures remain unremarked, untended in the course of an ordinary life; they are the unnoticed medium, the background against which all our experiences occur. My purpose in tracing what philosophers have been saying recently about the pictures we are living in is not to discover more correct pictures. Even if some of our pictures are wrong, I have no privileged position from which to set forth corrections. This is not false modesty; it is not even modesty. Junior year in high school, I had been an excellent student of French, so good, in fact, that I would amaze my roommate by reciting perfectly in class without having cracked the book the night before. I must have been pretty cocky about that, and maybe even about something or other besides, for in the hallway one day the French teacher said to me, as if in passing: “Henry, you don’t know everything you want to know yet.” I don’t remember what else he said. But what I got was more than a message about the incompleteness of my knowledge of French. His remark said something about my way of being, something that, somehow, I took on as ballast rather than correction. What lasted out of our encounter was a new distinction: he had provided a background, and I could see myself against it. He had named the medium in which I had been being, so that when I noticed it as a medium, as the tacit force field which had been shaping my participation, a new possibility of being opened up for me.

29One of my students once voiced his dismay at my own failure to fit the traditional picture: “Dr. McHenry, you never tell us anything!” I took this mostly as a compliment, if also partly as a tip that I was not meeting the students halfway. But what if a teacher’s authority came from authorship, rather than from superior knowledge? What if teachers were the unacknowledged legislators of the world: poets? Then the normal science of teaching would be invention and re-invention, instead of instruction. We would have an art of being together, an art in whose sway our science of instruction would function, instead of spinning its wheels. Not that it always and everywhere spins its wheels. Anyway, there is nothing wrong with instruction, either. Students are, or should be, anxious for us to tell them things.

30Where I have made a difference with students, I have somehow been able to be present with them in the teaching/learning arena, rather than off searching through a mental file cabinet of information about the subject or about methods of teaching it. We have become together. This extraordinary moment of shared being cannot happen unless I am prepared, confident of my command of the subject; but preparation in the subject or content of the lesson will not necessarily produce it. Where I have made a difference with my son—where he and I have been partners, sharing in the joy, the trials, and the mystery of his growing up—there has been that same sense of perfect engagement, of being together at the front of the train: laying the tracks as we go, inventing our way with the wind in our faces. It is not that we arrive at a destination nobody ever heard of before. It is rather that, coming from this kind of inventing, we arrive at the familiar places of family life and know them for the first time. Things are brand new here, not only for him but also for me. And whatever I say or do in this place contributes to him, and what he says and does educates me: when we are engaged this way, our world is ours, like Ulysses’.

31This is a “basics” we teachers could get back to: it is a kind of engagement that is possible before culture, even before literacy. And it is always possible between people, not just parents and children. Why did Ishmael go to sea “before the mast”? He intimates that his life as a schoolmaster had something to do with it. Why did his civil soul require intimate contact with Queequeg the tatooed harpooneer? As I jump aboard a New York City bus, at Amsterdam and a hundred and something street, late in the afternoon, why does a woman passenger offer me, my tweed pockets suddenly empty, fifty cents for the fare? Surely there is something more powerful in being together underneath the trappings, the social-conceptual webwork with which our lives are framed and buttressed. The “basics” of engagement not only allow but call forth invention and re-invention. Invention, as I use it here—in + venire—means coming into a world. Coming into a world together, we are engaged in a promise and a claim. For it is our world then, not the world. Engagement does not deny knowledge: it is the soul of knowledge. Literacy is the freight; this is the locomotive. A teacher may be the one who knows and tells, but teaching/learning is engagement.

  • 13 Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 131.
  • 14 E. Levinas says that Heidegger’s purpose was to reveal “the assembling of the whole of Being about (...)
  • 15 “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and langua (...)

32Because this book investigates the ways we talk, and might talk, more than the way things are, I will make use of etymology rattier brazenly. Heidegger has been criticized for his “largely fake” etymologies.13 Though the criticism is surely correct, it does not seem to me apt. It may not have been Heidegger’s purpose to produce correct etymologies,14 and, while I hope I have used the dictionaries conscientiously, neither is it mine. I try only to suggest the ways in which some of our words, in their usual senses, may work together to embody and maintain a picture of man’s relationship to the world, and our relationships in our world, and within that, of teachers’ relationships to students. A picture holds us captive, says Wittgenstein.15 Perhaps we can release ourselves into an area of our dwelling together by highlighting some of the currently transparent senses of our words. We speak of teachers and instructors almost without distinguishing between them, but the verb “to teach” in English comes from an Old English form meaning to show, to let appear. In French the verb is enseigner, from Latin insignare or insignire, to make known by pointing, signalling. By thinking of teachers as instructors (L. instruere, to pile up, build), we may miss the distinction between persons building with materials and persons being with persons. It is not the specific names but the vocabularies that are at issue, the constellations of names in the region of our home galaxy. Even Outward Bound calls its leaders “instructors,” though their job is to bring present, for and with their students, a new world to dwell in together. Whatever you call yourself, use this book to inquire into the vocabulary of your craft, its methods of training you, of constituting your job, of relating you with your students.

33As a record of my own intellectual journey, a sometimes-inspired student and teacher, and of my not-always-delighted encounters with my child, this whole book reads a bit like a drive through West Virginia, twisting between theorizing, inquiry, and observation; philosophy and diary. I do not know how to ride a motorcycle (just as well, perhaps) so I will be driving the car I am used to, a 1967 Chrysler station wagon—a huge rolling condominium of a car, with a luggage rack on top and crannies inside for all the walking sticks and life preservers I have collected since before my mother died. It was her car before I inherited it. I can haul lumber and tools inside and a ladder on top, and I love its aura of expedition. Saved from extinction by care and lucky artifice, it gives a certain context to my building, to my journey. Dustin says it’s the best car we own.

34It may not surprise a veteran teacher to hear that your way of being is more important in a classroom than what you know. Be careful how you live, the maxim warns; you may be the only textbook a student ever reads. But we still have almost no access to our ways of being; hence we have only hobbled means of making a difference for our students and for society. How are we to recover those moments of magic that we lose in our anxiety for the results that the magic makes possible?

35A Cincinnati teacher, offered a magic wand by Harry Smith of CBS, said that the one thing he would wish for to transform his school is a way of working with each student, one by one. If this project succeeds, so that the background of teaching/learning includes the conversation of being—the listening for being—it will grant him his wish. He will be able, even in the midst of his class of thirty or fifty or a hundred students, to be with each one individually, personally, and intimately, with all the promise and power available in that communion.

36I am aware that this is a tall order, and I am writing scared. “Oh, get real; you can’t manage that!” I hear myself saying. “Be serious! Education isn’t a magic show!”

37“Not yet, it isn’t,” I reply to myself, somewhat shakily. Then, warming to the possibility of my task: “There were supposed to be more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our philosophy.”

38While we seem to have heaven pretty well down by now, there may yet be marvels available to us on earth. The book will recommend, and reading it may produce for you, a kind of awareness; and while I will avoid “steps to better teaching,” I will suggest (in Chapter Seven) exercises and activities for preparing for the classroom encounter and for refreshing its power in midstream. But the power of a technique arises out of the listening in which it is used. A technique is not a mechanism, any more than you or I. (The Greek word tekné meant art.) So I speak into your listening, and into the listening that uses us both, hoping for grace to reinvent our listening for each other.


1 M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, eds. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 143-4.

2 Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 99.

3 All definitions in this paragraph (except Dustin’s) are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

4 Definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary.

5 I use the term “paradigm” in the sense familiar since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A “parameter” is something we measure by.

6 Lawrence Cremin, Popular Education and Its Discontents (New York: Harper and Row, 1990), 77.

7 As Hirsch acknowledges, it is in any case impossible to require exposure—or at least to require that an exposure register as we intend. How would one teach about atomic structure in elementary school? Perhaps on analogy with the solar system. But what if the pupils have not already learned about the structure of the solar system? In a well-known exchange with Hirsch in the New York Review of Books (April 13, 1989), Herbert Kohl proposed the following experiential process:
Ask one of the children to stand up, and then ask another to get up and walk around the first. Then have a third child walk around the first child, only in a larger orbit. Continue this with the whole class illustrating an orbiting structure. As a next step ask students to think of different natural phenomena that could be modeled by their little dance.
But as Hirsch points out, while one group of pupils might take to Kohl’s method, another group, with a different “social background,” might not:
They complain that moving around the room in orbits is “too first-gradish”; they decline to get the larger point; they clown, and feel uneasy; they resent the whole exercise. Kohl, with a good teacher’s sensitivity to significant differences between groups, would make appropriate adjustments in his mode of proceeding, and would probably abandon the dance-of-the-planets strategy in favor of one that
Hirsch is making part of my point here. With each group of students, the
arena that develops on a particular day may defeat the most carefully planned lesson. The kids don’t have to take the point of an analogy, or of anything you do; hence the need for “perpetual discretion.” But the point that follows, one of Hirsch’s “basic principles of teaching,” seems to me at least questionable:
Even in open classrooms, the main work of teaching is conducted
by means of verbal communication between the members of the class. There is an inherent link between effective classroom communication and effective learning. If Kohl wishes to suggest that successful classroom learning doesn’t depend on students sharing extensive background knowledge, then, with regard to that particular issue, I have no hesitancy in saying he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Hirsch’s logic assumes that the reason for their resistance in this case is that, because their social backgrounds have been different, they do not share background knowledge. Effective communication, whence learning, is assumed to depend on extensive common knowledge. I am starting my inquiry with a contrary question: What if the main work of teaching is conducted by something other than verbal communication, something that makes verbal communication possible, perhaps? What besides background knowledge is always present in the classroom as the enabling context for the verbal communication? Hirsch does not claim here that shared background knowledge is a sufficient condition for communication and learning. I am inquiring in this book into the conditions of sharing.

8 See Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 73.

9 The Tacit Dimension, 1966, 61.

10 “We ask the questions ‘How does it stand with being?’ ‘What is the meaning of being?’ not in order to set up an ontology on the traditional style, much less to criticize the past mistakes of ontology. We are concerned with something totally different: to restore man’s historical being-there—and that always includes our own future being-there in the totality of the history allotted to us—to the domain of being, which it was originally incumbent on man to open up for himself.”
Heidegger adds, with perhaps a touch of modesty: “All this, to be sure, in the limits within which philosophy can accomplish anything.” (Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Mannheim [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1959 and 1987], 41-2.)

11 These are the questions that the philosophical pragmatist asks about any vocabulary that claims his allegiance. Cf. Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 163.

12 See Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, Turning the Soul: Teaching through Conversation in High School (University of Chicago Press, 1991), 4-5.

13 Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 131.

14 E. Levinas says that Heidegger’s purpose was to reveal “the assembling of the whole of Being about him who speaks or perceives, and who also forms a part of the assembled Being”:
when in the Iliad the resistance to an attack by an enemy phalanx is compared to the resistance of a rock to the waves that assail it, it is not necessarily a matter of extending to the rock, through anthropomorphism, a human behavior, but of interpreting human resistance petromorphically. Resistance is neither a human privilege, nor a rock’s, just as radiance does not characterize a day of the month of May more authentically than the face of a woman. The meaning precedes the data and illuminates them. Here lies the essential justification and great force of Heidegger’s etymologies, which, starting with the impoverished and flat meaning of a term apparently designating a content of external or psychological experience, lead toward a global situation in which a totality of experiences is assembled and illuminated. (Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis [Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhof Publishers, 1987], 78.)

15 “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” (Philosophical Investigations, 3rd edition trans. G. E. M. Anscombe [New York: Macmillan, 1953], §115. All quotations from Wittgenstein reprinted with the permission of Simon & Schuster.)

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