Camus and the Art of Teaching
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EDUCATIONAL THEORY Summer 1987, Vol. 37, No. 3 0 1967 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Camus and the Art of Teaching By lgnacio L. Gotz
The purpose of this paper is to explore the connection between art and teaching. This connection, which is often sloganized in statements claiming that teaching is an art, has remained for the most part empty because the meaning of art usually has been left unexplained. Without a reasonably clear understanding of art it is meaningless to claim that teaching is an art.
In this paper I shall explore first Camuss view of art. As an artist himself, Camus paid considerable attention to the notion of art, especially to its implications for twentieth- century artists. Once Camuss notion of art is as clear as it can possibly be, I shall relate it to the practices of teaching.
1 must add that my concern here is not to develop a general theory of art, but to explain Camuss own views. Hence, reference to other contemporary theories of art are excluded, not because they are not significant, but because they would distract from the focus of the article. One must know ones limits, and Nemesis watches out for the transgressor. The Greeks never maintained that the limits could not be crossed, only that no one did so with impunity.
1. In her book about Camus, Germaine Bree speaks of the artist as Ihomme absurde par excellence.2 The characterization is adequate and appropriate. For Camus, art is a paramount way of living under the shadow of the absurd. Consequently, the artist is the most absurd ~haracter~ Camus deals with in his writings. This connection between art and the absurd must be investigated.
For Camus, the absurd is basically the relation that exists between the human longing for order, peace, beauty, happiness, or whatever else humans may yearn for, and the unhappiness, ugliness, strife, and disorder experienced in the day-to-day process of living. The absurd is a relation between question and answer. For Camus, the longing is innate. To be human is to long. But the problem does not arise with the longing alone; neither does it consist in the chaos of the world taken by itself or as an objective datum. The relation that is the absurd arises in the coming together of man and world, longing and disappointment. Camus writes: This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.4 And again: This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.I5
The absurd, therefore, is the realization that the human longing goes unanswered.
Correspondence: 107 Barnard Hall, New College, Hofstra University, Hempstead, Long Island, NY 1 1550.
1. I have explored the bearing of other contemporary views of art on teaching in Zen in the Art of Teaching, New Education 7, nos. 1-2 (1985): 5-9, and in Heidegger and the Art of Teaching, Educational Theory 33, no. 1 (Winter 1983): 1-9.
For a view linking Langers theory of art with teaching, see Elliot Eisner, The Educational hagination (New York: Macrnillan. 1979), and the critique of it by H. A. Alexander, Eisners Aesthetic Theory of Evaluation, Educational Theory 36, no. 3 (Summer 1986): 259-70.
2. Germaine Bree, Camus (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1964), 245. 3. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (New York: Vintage, 1955), 68. 4. Ibid.. 16. 5. Ibid., 5.
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But by realization is not meant a purely conceptual awareness. Rather, it is a matter of experience first, which is later reflected on and conceptualized. The experience comes unexpectedly, as it did to the young Camus at fifteen, when one day he spat blood, was diagnosed as tubercular, and had to confront realistically the possibility of death.
Further, the absurd is a relation, that is, a link between two terms. It is a relation between human longing and wordly rejection, between the human call and the worlds silence. Consequently, the absurd, properly speaking, depends as much on man as on the world.6 If there were no human query, there would be no absurd.
The absurd does not pertain to the inanimate or the nonhuman world. Similarly, if the human question were satisfactorily answered, there would be no absurd. If man realized that the universe like him can love and suffer, he would be re~onciled.~ But such is not the case. The hiatus remains; it is the gap that joins the precipices, and it is the absurd that joins man and world. The absurd is the relationship between the two elements, the human and the cosmic. This relation is not of comradeship but of estrangement. That is why Camus calls it divorce:
The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation.. . . I can therefore say that the Absurd is not in man . . . nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting them. If I wish to limit myself to facts, I know what man wants, I know what the world offers him, and now I can say that I always know what links
Such, briefly, is the character and nature of the absurd. 2. To be an absurd person, according to Camus, is to live with full unclouded
awareness of the absurd. Negatively, it is to live in such a way that the absurd is never denied or escaped; yet it is never consented to. There can be no absurd outside the human mind, Camus wrote, for only the human mind can comprehend the nostalgia that is wasted upon the callousness of the world. Yet the absurd has meaning only in so far as it is not agreed to.1 Thus, the question is to remain true to the experience Out Of which the absurd has been born, without succumbing to it in nihilism and without denying it. Being able to remain on that dizzying crest - that is integrity and the rest is subterfuge.
For Camus, the primary imperative is to be honest - intellectually honest. This honesty requires that no experience undergone be ever denied or emasculated. The longing for total meaning, total love, total life, and the answer of the world - secrecy, indifference, and death - give rise to an experience that is primary and fundamental. It must not be obliterated, no matter how painful; it must not be covered up or denied. No matter how seductive the explanations and the partial satisfactions, the stark reality of the universes indifference to human longing, of its secrecy, and of death, must not be forgotten. To retain this memory, to be honest about it - and yet to fight against death, against indifference, against mystery, and against efforts to cover up the evidence - such is the life that transpires under the shadow of the absurd, and it is the only authentic human life.
3. Art, Camus tells us, involves extreme awareness. It is thought in its most lucid form.12 We are also told that creating is living d~ubly. ~ What do these two statements tell us about the absurd character of art?
In its most fundamental reality art, says Camus, is absurd because it marks both
6. Ibid., 16. 7. Ibid.. 13. 8. Ibid., 22-23. 9. Ibid., 23. 10. Ibid., 24. 11. Ibid., 37. 12. Ibid., 72. 13. Ibid., 70.
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the death of an experience and its m~ltiplication.~ The profound experience that marks the genesis of the work of art cannot be reproduced entirely. Upon inspecting the world a profound feeling has gripped the artist, and he/she hastens to express it in his/her favorite medium. But the expression must perforce remain truncated, incomplete, because we have no way of expressing totally the contents of our experiences. This is due not only to the fact that our means of expression are inadequate to the task, but also to the unconscious or mysterious layer that surrounds any utterance, a fact of which Freud has made us aware. Deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying,15 Camus explains. Consequently any work of art, by its nature, is condemned to be /ess,16 to express only partially what the artist has felt in the innermost recesses of his/her being and to convey certain aspects in a mysterious form.
And yet, wouldnt the artist want to express it all? Wouldnt he/she want to capture wholly and not only in part the vision seen at the moment of inspiration? This nostalgia for wholeness clashes with the limits of partiality imposed upon the artist by the universe in which we live. In art as in everything, the absurd rears up its head.
But true artists refuse to yield. Firstly, they must resist the temptation, often spawned by a successful work, to think that they have said it all, that they have captured the fullness of the moment or given sound to the full range of emotions. Secondly, they must seek to express ever more intimate aspects of reality. But they must beware: they must not believe the work perfect. To compensate, an effort is sometimes made: perhaps the multiplicity of works will more nearly exhaust what one work alone could never say. Perhaps quantity will do instead of depth and wholeness. And the temptation is to think that this substitution might indeed be possible, that the quantity of poems, paintings, songs, statues will comprehend and express what a single work could never do. But the true absurd artist knows that this can never be the case. The quest for wholeness will forever be frustrated by the partiality of expression obtaining in the present state of affairs. True artists know their efforts must miscarry. But they know, too, that to refuse the effort betrays the absurd as much as to claim completeness. Therefore they accept no subterfuge and remain lucid in their quest. Since art, given this tendency, is inclined to be repetitious, it bears witness, in a preeminent way, to the absurdity of the world. It makes the authentic artist the most lucid kind of human.
From another perspective it is valid to maintain that true art necessarily points beyond itself. It itself is an implication of wholeness where only partiality has been expressed. True art never reproduces exactly, no matter what paintings may seem to represent to the untrained eye. It is impossible for art to be realistic in the usual scientific sense, in the sense that it can reproduce reality or the world as experienced in feelings and through the imagination. The World never reveals itself perfectly; indeed, if the world were clear, art would not exist. Why would one filter absolutely pure water? No; there is no true creation without a secret.l8 And it is this characteristic, perhaps, as Heidegger has maintained, that makes art so necessary a part of the human condition. For while science pretends that what it says about the world is the truth, art maintains that the truth lies rather in what it implies about the world. For the world is not merely what we see, but equally what we do not see - indeed, what would be betrayed in the saying or diffused in the seeing, as Goethe claimed and Heisenberg demonstrated. Art, then, remains the only means of depicting the dress of the world as well as its nakedness, the worlds appearance and reality, the visible and the invisible, history and mystery. It is in this sense that Nietzsche once wrote that art is the only truly metaphysical activity of
14. Ibid. 15. Ibid., 8. 16. Ibid., 72. 17. Ibid.. 73. 18. Ibid.. 84. 19. Friedrich Nietzsche, Attempt at Self-Criticism: chap. 5 of The Birth of Tragedy (New
York: Vintage, 1967), 22.
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The decision to create, then, implies a choice. The artist must decide what elements of the whole of experience are to be expressed on canvas or in words and which ones must be withheld. The whole is inexpressible, so to create is necessarily to limit ones world,2o the world one has experienced, the world one captured in the fleeting stirrings of ones soul.*
Choices must be made if there is to be art. Yet such choices are gratuitous. What evidence does one have that in describing the world this element chosen will be more significant than that, in the long run? What justification is there for the expression of filtered reality? We have art, according to Nietzsche, in order not to die of the truth. The truth, naked and uncovered, even if it manifested itself to us, would slay us in its power and its splendor. No one can see God and live. So we have art, and therefore all art is, in a true sense, unfaithful to reality. Even granting, arguendo, that objective, pure truth could be reached, could we live in the starkness of such truth, with the naked feeling of ourselves and our world? On the other hand, what grounds do we have to believe that it is better to live by art than to die by truth? None. But it is a chance that artists take without certainty of its outcome. Such a chance is characteristic of absurd art. In the words of Camus,
To work and create for nothing, to sculpture in clay, to know that ones creation has no future, to see ones work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries -this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. Per- forming these two tasks simultaneously, negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colors.n
Only in this way can the artist achieve the freedom essential to artistic work: to be free from the very undertaking of art.
The artist, then, lives a double life of affirmation and denial. True art hovers between failure and perseverance, negation and statement. It is an exercise between detachment and passion.26 It must maintain the longing, recognize the limits, and proceed with steadfast determination. Art, therefore, is a way of concretizing the absurd in life. Art is not absurd - and therefore it is not art - if the work does not illustrate divorce and revolt,27 if its main characteristic is not perseverance in an effort considered sterile.28 In a true sense, perhaps the greatest work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his naked reality. By its character, art seems eminently suited to exemplifying the absurd. It is one of the principal ways of leading a life under the shadow of the absurd.
4. It must be clear that to approach art under the shadow of the absurd is no easy matter. Characteristically, the artist is a person in revolt, a rebel. The rebel, says Camus, is a man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion.30
There is in revolt a simultaneous negation and affirmation. One says No because of a certain Yes implied; one denies access to a certain value that is thereby implicitly
20. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 74. 21. Ibid., 75; Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage, 1956), 256, 270. 22. Albert Camus, Create Dangerously, in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (New York
23. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 84. 24. Ibid., 86-87. 25. Albert Camus. The Wager of Our Generation, in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, 183. 26. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 76. 27. Ibid., 75. 28. Ibid., 85. 29. Ibid. 30. Camus, The Rebel, 13.
Modern Library, 1963). 198.
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affirmed; one sets up a barrier to protect a cherished land; one obscures a fact to exalt another one. The slave who screams No! to a master who threatens to strike him/her is no mere nay-sayer: the No! implies, I must not be struck; I am a human being, a being of some worth! The outward No! masks an inner Yes! to oneself and ones worth.
Against this background, Camus maintains that art is revolt, that art is the activity that exalts and denies simultaneously. . . . Artistic creation is a demand for unity and a rejection of the world. But it rejects the world on account of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is.3 Again:
Art, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world. Consequently, its only aim is to give another form to a reality that it is nevertheless forced to preserve as the source of its emotion. In this regard, we are all realistic and no one is. Art is neither complete rejection nor complete acceptance of what is. It is simultaneously rejection and acceptance, and this is why it must be a perpetually renewed wrenching apart. The artist constantly lives in such a state of ambiguity, incapable of negating the real yet eternally bound to question it in its eternally unfinished aspects.32
To understand this it may be helpful to say that for Camus art does not deal merely with the beautiful. Or, more accurately, that the beauty art deals with is not what a society commonly defines as beauty.
Art deals with the world, with how the world manifests itself. Some of these manifestations are not pretty, but the artist must deal with them without betrayal and yet without consent. For example, it matters little that the colors, the brush strokes, the composition, and the painterly surface of Bougueraus Leda and the Swan are magnificent: rape is rape; it is not pretty or pleasant; and Bouguerau, therefore, betrays the reality of the world he depicts, of the world that manifests itself to him, by singling out in the painting only the aspects of the idyllic setting, of the majestic swan, and of a woman at her bath, neglecting the facts of rape. He is not an artist in revolt. Much more appropriate is the artistic treatment of the subject in the Roman stele of the rape of Leda33 and in Yeatss poem Leda and the Swan. Here there is art in the sculpted line, in the composition, in the choice of words, and in the rhythm. But the violence and brutality are also present, and equally a starkness that implies the fervent judgment that rape should not take place, not by a deity, not by anyone, and that any intrusion of the divine into human experience is overpowering and need not be pretty. These artists are in revolt. They do not hide the brutal clash of rape with the longing for love, nor the violation of a human being by the divine. They do not sweeten rape because the rapist is Zeus, nor pretend that rape is tolerable if it occurs in an idyllic setting. They say No! to rape while implying Yes! to the longing for love.
Now, if the absurd is the sustained relation between longing and rejection and if the absurd life is a life lived with an unclouded awareness of this divorce between desire and frustration, expectation, and disappointment, then revolt is the effort to reconstruct the world according to desire without losing sight of frustration.% To achieve this is precisely the task of the artist. But in doing this the artist still constructs an image of the world. He consents to the world but revolts against its indifference. By the treatment that the artist imposes on reality, he declares the intensity of his rejection. But what he retains of reality in the universe that he creates reveals the degree of consent that he gives to at least one part of reality.35 This is the perennial struggle of the artist. To accept the vocation to be an artist is to accept the call to revolt without end. Art that is not revolt in the context of the absurd is not truly art.
31. Ibid., 253. 32. Camus, Create Dangerously, 202. 33. Carl G. Jung et al., Man and His Symbols (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 239. 34. Cf. Camus, The Rebel, 255. 35. Ibid.. 268.
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5. As revolt, art is caught in the middle. It affirms and denies. To tilt too much to one extreme or the other is to abandon the absurd. The essence of revolt, therefore, is neither to exaggerate nor to absolutize, but to maintain a middle ground. In a true sense, the essence of revolt is moderation, that perpetual conflict between Yes and No, that pure tension36 that exists in any balance precariously preserved. In so far as art is a way of dealing concretely with the absurd, art is the balance: The greater the artists revolt against the worlds reality, the greater can the weight of reality be to balance that re~olt.~ The effort to maintain this balance is the daily struggle of the artist throughout his/her lifetime. In art,
the loftiest work will always be . . . the work that maintains an equilibrium between reality and mans rejection of that reality, each forcing the other upward in a ceaseless overflowing, characteristic of life itself at its most joyous and heart-rending extremes. Then, every once in a while, a new world appears, different from the everyday world and yet the same, particular but universal, full of innocent security -called forth for a few hours by the power and longing of genius. Thats just it and yet thats not it; the world is nothing and the world is everything -this is the contradictory and tireless cry of every true artist, the cry that keeps him on his feet with eyes ever open and that, once in a while, awakens for all in this world asleep the fleeting and insistent image of a reality we recognize without ever having known it.=
6. I have said that the absurd, for Camus, is a divorce and that art is a way of living the absurd. But there is more. For, as the absurd is a relation, so too is art a relation. But it is the character of relations to involve simultaneously both difference as well as unity between the related terms. Terms in relation are different from as well as similar to each other. While calling the absurd a relation of divorce emphasizes the difference between the terms, Camus also insists that the absurd holds the terms together. Divorced spouses are divorced spouses. The same is true of art. In a certain and true sense, art is a form of reconciliation between the world and what we demand of it.% By relating the world to the human spectator, art brings together the sundered world of the absurd. That canvas, that marble, that poem, is the world humanized, truth and meaning, fact and image reconstituted in a wholeness which yet is never consummated absolutely. Christianity saw heaven and earth united in the two-natured Christ; James Joyce sees the twain meet again and again in the work of art.
Accordingly, true art is called upon to unite;40 it represents a passion for ~nity,~ the unity between what we long for and what the world offers us. Writes Camus: In every rebellion is to be found the metaphysical demand for unity, the impossibility of capturing it, and the construction of a substitute universe. Rebellion, from this point of view, is a fabricator of universes. This also defines art.42 It is only in so far as art lives this passionate quest for unity that it can be a way of leading an absurd life.
The passion for unity does not play itself out only in a metaphysical realm. Artists live in a social world as well. The very &/an that makes rebels out of artists obliges them to be also social combatants.43 Their task is none the easier for that.
Camus was very much aware of the ambiguity and consequently of the difficulty of this situation. Divorced parties do not often stay friends, and political criticism and opposition generally engender rift. He faced this dilemma in his own life, especially during the Algerian conflict, when he sought to divorce himself from the political extremes while remaining friendly to the various parties, but to no avail. The rift
36. Ibid., 301. 37. Camus, Create Dangerously, 203. 38. Ibid. 39. Cf. Brbe, Camus, 239. 40. Camus, Create Dangerously, 196. 41. Camus, The Rebel, 262. 42. Ibid., 255. 43. Cf. BrBe, Carnus, 244.
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appeared, too, as a result of his critique of Sartres Marxism. Yet Camus would not abandon the struggle to maintain a middle ground between rejection and acceptance. How to be in the world yet not of it? How to be neither victim nor executioner? His conclusion: The artist can neither turn away from his time nor lose himself in i t . . . he cannot escape from this ambig~i ty . ~~ He explored this ambiguity in many speeches and in one of his short stories, The Artist at Work.45 The painter Jonas (and the name is, of course, significant) has risen from obscurity, and in his newly acquired fame is surrounded by admirers and disciples. As the crowd around him grows and progressively encroaches on every minute of his working day, Jonas retreats to drink, first, and then to a platform erected within his own high-ceilinged apartment. There, perched in isolation, he embarks on the execution of what promises to be a masterpiece. He collapses from exhaustion after several days of feverish activity. While the doctor reassures all that Jonas will recover soon, Rateau, the loyal friend, puzzles in front of the canvas, completely blank, in the center of which Jonas had merely written in very small letters a word that could be made out, but without any certainty as to whether it should be read solitary or solidary
The ambiguity is apparent and overwhelming. From a certain point of view art cannot be a mon010gue;~~ but neither can it require total engagement Again, in Camuss words: On the one hand, genius is expected to be splendid and solitary; on the other hand, it is called upon to resemble all.@ Similarly, the artist is torn between conformity and originality. Of what could art speak, indeed? asks Camus.
If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be meaningless recreation. If it blindly rejects that society, if the artist makes up his mind to take refuge in his dream, art will express nothing but a negation. In this way we shall have the production of entertainers or of formal grammarians, and in both cases this leads to an art cut off from living reality!g
There is no question about it: The artist of today becomes unreal if he remains in his ivory tower or sterilized if he spends his time galloping around the political arena. Yet between the two lies the arduous way of true art.50
The main line of combat, therefore, in the social as in the artistic and metaphysical arenas, is the middle way. As was the case in the ancient world, salvation for the artist lies in the ability to steer a middle course between Scylla and Charybdis, the extremes of haughty isolation and maddening sociopolitical activity. In the end, art, like rebellion, is nothing but pure tension!
7. It may be said that all this is a matter of style. To live the absurd artistically is to fashion for oneself an art of li~ing.~
The meaning of style derives from stylus, the pointed instrument used for writing. By extension, the word also meant the distinctive way each writer had of tracing the letters. Thus, style combined the two elements of reality and subjectivity, longing and disappointment, we have seen to be the components of the absurd. In this sense one can agree with Camus that the particular, individual kind of correction which the artist imposes by his language and by a redistribution of elements derived from reality is called style and gives the re-created universe its unity and its b~undaries.~~ In other words, an artists style is his/her inimitable way of combining rejection and acceptance, divorce and friendliness, history and mystery.
Whitehead had described style along the same lines. Style in art, he wrote, style
44. 45. 46. 47.
49. 50. 51. 52.
Camus, Create Dangerously, 203. Albert Camus, fxile and the Kingdom (New York: Vintage, 1958), 11 0 ff. Ibid., 158. Camus, Create Dangerously, 197. Ibid., 202. Ibid., 193. Camus, The Wager of Our Generation, 182. Brbe, Camus, 239. Camus, The Rebel, 269.
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in literature, Style in science, style in logic, style in practical execution have fundamentally the same aesthetic qualities, namely, attainment and restraint. . . . Style is the ultimate morality of mind53 -of life, one would rather say - the ultimate balance that the absurd life can achieve. In this sense all authentic artists, if they be consummate, regardless of affiliation, medium, technique, have style; that is, they have that which supposes the simultaneous existence of reality and of the mind that gives reality its form. Through style, the creative effort reconstructs the world, and always with the same slight distortion that is the mark of both art and protest.54 How else could one imprint ones character upon the yielding tablets of ones time?
8. When speaking about style Whitehead was addressing teachers. Kenneth Eble also has teachers in mind when he writes that style establishes a harmony -temporary, perhaps, but firm nonetheless - between ourselves and life. Out of both the struggle and the reconciliation come the words and acts that reveal style.55 If teaching is to be an art, it must have style. Teaching style is to be understood in the sense of unity and reconciliation outlined by Camus.
I do not mean to say that teachers must teach the absurd to their students or must make the absurd apparent to them in their lives. Rather, I mean that when teaching is authentic, it puts on the characteristics of absurd art as described by Camus. It does not romanticize; it strives. To understand what this means it may be helpful to begin with a description of the absurd teacher. I shall try to convey this meaning through a paraphrase of Camuss retelling of the myth of Sisyphus.
THE ABSURD TEACHER
So I continue to continue To pretend my life will never end, And flowers never bend with the rainfal15E
A year is finished. Another is about to start. And this process of finishing and starting has gone on for years, and it will go on for years, until one is too tired to begin anew or too decrepit to know one has finished. This is the cycle of meaninglessness, the never-ending repetition of the same motions, the same questions, the same answers, the same assignments, the same memos, the same drills. This is the rock one pushes up every year, to see it roll down during the summer and rest, once more, at the base of the ever-present mountain, as one descends to pick it up again when the new year starts. So I continue to continue.. . .
It is never enough to teach one class. One can never do ones teaching job so perfectly that one could exhaust all the myriad possibilities latent in what it means to be a teacher. The essential teacher evades ones grasp. It is a will-o-the-wisp, a vain pursuit of a cloud that always stays ahead. And so one multiplies the trials, and one begins again and again. It is not, really, that one still hopes to fulfill the expectations of being a teacher. It is not that one expects that, perhaps this year, one will become what one has failed to become year after year up to now. The absurd teacher knows this will never be, and so quantity takes over the place of fulfillment, and one simply continues to continue.. . . Perhaps many words will say what one utterance alone could never mean; they may fulfill the potentialities of being a teacher.
One strives to inform, but one knows that information must be received, that words, once uttered, must be heard, that questions require answers that cannot be truly plucked from the answerer as one plucks apples from a tree. One cannot make another see. One can present oneself and hope one will be noticed. Ones words must hang loosely in the air until a ready spirit captures them and makes them its own. So many meanings die for want of a ready mind, so many feelings go abegging!
And so one faces those others in the classroom with the forlorn hope that, perhaps today, they will accept, and one will be finally fulfilled as a teacher. But one is afraid to look too Close, to scrutinize the faces directly in front: eyes with a glazed, opaque quality like the haze that dims the horizon, sign of the distance between the teacher and the taught; hands that move routinely, in habitual, studied ways, to tick off an answer here, erase an error there, turn a page to show
53. Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1929), 23-24. 54. Camus, The Rebel, 271. 55. Kenneth E. Eble, A Perfect Education (New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1966), 179. 56. Simon & Garfunkel, Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall.
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one has been reading, scribbling something to show one has been listening (even though, in truth, one has been enjoying the sunshine in the fields, last summer, or the one before, when butterflies danced among the flowers, and the sky was blue): clanging bells, the flurry of activity that is too nervous to be spontaneous, sign of pent-up energy seeking temporary release. This is the mechanism of classroom procedure that makes the teacher feel alien to it all, a person among mannequins, the ghost in the machine.
If only one could communicate that inner vision, the meanings one has found, the relevances one has discovered! But there is a denseness about experience that makes it impenetrable to all but the one who has been graced by it. One cannot destroy the walls that circle all individuals and render them unique. Ones insight must remain ones own, ones anguish is ones burden. And to this one adds the solitary despair of seeing others make the mistakes one made, without being able to teach them the lessons that one learned.
So the years pass, and classes come and go, and death approaches, and what one set out to become, the teacher, still remains an unapproachable ideal. One is not nearer now than one was when one started it all. But time is running out.
One must not lose the lucidity and awareness one has gained, even though the temptation is strong and ever-present: the fawning respect of parents and even of students more interested in a high grade than in true learning, the learning that cannot be measured; the false sense that one has taught someone something, that one has been shaping character, that one has rescued a soul from the darkness of ignorance and led it up the steep and rugged ascent to the light of knowledge and wisdom. All this is illusion, and its effect is the clouding of lucidity, of the awareness that teaching, in fact, never fully takes place. One must retain ones lucidity and not let oneself be deceived by the pretense that one knows what one is doing, that one knows what others dont, that one has seen what others have not, that one can guide others through the night toward the dawn of a new day. Above all, one must avoid the lingering hope that one day they will return, their minds enlightened, their hearts aflame, to thank one for the kindling of the fire that burns without consuming - the craving for knowledge. One never fully accomplishes anything. One is never fully a teacher. Even i f some were to return, the abscences would be sufficient to remind one that the fullness of teaching can never be realized.
The rock rolls down: a class departs, and one strides in to meet another. One does not know if one has ever, really, taught. One knows that one can never, fully, teach. But the doing of it is, in itself, enough to fill ones heart. The meeting of people and minds, the merging of hearts, year after year, in the knowledge that we are fellow travellers in quest of temporary abodes, is, itself, a most enjoyable experience. One must imagine the teacher happy.
Teaching, like all true artistic activity - like all authentic living-must confront the paradoxical ambiguity of its existence in the world. It can be neither purely objective in its approach to subject matter nor purely subjective in its interpretation; for if Kant, Goethe, and Heisenberg are right - perception inevitably colors the perceived fact - nevertheless the teachers task is to convey a certain information, a certain set of meanings, a specific subject matter, to his/her pupils. Further, teaching cannot afford to surrender to routine, but neither can it be unscheduled to the point of disorder; it cannot wallow in pessimism due to the recurring failures of pupils, the stupidity of administrators, the shortcoming of other teachers, even ones own misdeeds in meeting the tasks at hand; but neither can it be naively optimistic about the outcome of educational endeavors; it cannot be radically committed to an ideology, or to the processes of social change, to the point of being fanatic; but neither can it be intellectually isolated in the ivory towers of academe; it cannot be one-sidedly cognitive, as most of our schooling is today; but neither can it be wholly affective, as many reform movements of the 60s counseled it to be. Whenever teaching assumes any one position in disregard of the others, it absolutizes, and thereby loses the character of ambiguity and the pursuit of moderation that mark its claim to arti~try.~
To be artistic, teaching must hold on to the middle path. Whether in its relation to subject matter, to pupils, to colleagues, to the bureaucratic superstructure, to the demands made by the socioeconomic context in which it transpires, or by the envisaged ideals pondered at the start of ones teaching life, teaching must exist in perpetual conflict, in a struggle to hold on to every facet of the situation, excluding nothing.
9. Teaching is choosing, the kind of choosing that enables one to thread a needle:
57. Cf. Camus, The Rebel, 268.
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the thread is the unfolding of ones life; the needles eye is the narrow passage so difficult to find, the path between extremes - the absurd.
This choosing has a momentous importance. It is not a matter of abstractions but of a lived life. The artist. . . becomes himself in his work,58 wrote Camus. So does the artistic teacher. The teachers life itself, the living of it, is choice in process: to breathe is to to teach is to choose. As Buber had already remarked, to teach is to select the world that will become the world for the pupil; it is to incorporate into ones living the aspects of the world one chooses for oneself and for ones pupils, so that in learning the teacher the pupils will learn the world as chosen and personalized.60 This is the reason why the most fundamental model of teaching is the master whose style is captured by the eager apprentice. As in art, so in teaching, the essential question is one of style.
But this choice is gratuitous, and the authentic teacher as much as the artist is profoundly aware of it. For what evidence is there, really, that this subject matter I have chosen to teach (that is, to identify with myself in my lived life) is more significant, or more revelatory, than another? What evidence is there that geography reveals to us the places of the world, or that mathematics and science open up for us the order of the cosmos; or even that the order of the world is more important than its disorder and decay? What ultimately convincing ground do we have to affirm with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living? None. But this is a chance the teacher, like the artist, takes, without certainty of its outcome. The teacher, too, teaches for nothing, not merely in the sense that his/her choice is ultimately groundless, but also in the sense that he/she is aware of the temporality of all teaching: we teach what we know now; but how will the world know itself in a hundred years? To teach knowing that ones teaching has no future is the only way open to the absurd teacher. But it is in such an absurd context that teaching becomes an art.
10. As a relation, the absurd connotes difference as well as mutuality. The absurd arises as confrontation, but it endures in the tension between longing and response. The multiple relationships of teaching begin, too, in opposition, but endure only in the protracted dialogue of the teaching life.
First, there is the objective and the subjective; the demands of the world and the hopes of the soul; the facts of history, geography, language, science, math, literature - the myriad details that make up what Ortega called the mountain of knowledge to be mastered only by the daring climber. Then there is us and them: colleagues, parents, administrators, pupils; all those who constitute that world of inscrutable darkness that lurks behind the eyes transparent but unremitting; and we, the teachers, the living bridges between fact and fancy, past and future, the world and its meaning. In the concrete lived life of the teacher are spanned the disparate realities of the world, facts, knowledge, innocence, corruption, despair, aspiration, youth, old age, number, disorder, cruelty, kindness, concern, punctuality, forgetfulness, and whatever other opposites can be made to coincide with the activities of teaching. The world and the longing to know are the two factions of a cosmic tug of war, and teaching is the rope. This rope cannot be bought; it exists only as the teacher lives out his/her passionate quest for the unification of the multiplex of life. And insofar as teaching succeeds in this task (albeit imperfectly) - insofar as it becomes a coincidence of opposites, teaching is an art. Its product is civilization with all its discontents. In its activity it fabricates the flimsy universe of culture. Herein lies its greatness.
Built on such shaky ground? Indeed, for there is no other one. Referring to acting, Camus asks:
Why should we be surprised to find a fleeting fame built upon the most ephemeral of creations? The actor has three hours to be lago or Alceste, Phedre or Gloucester. In that short space of time he makes them come to life
58. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 72 . 59. Camus, The Rebel, 8. 60. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 89-90.
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and die on fifty square yards of boards. Never has the absurd been so well illustrated or at such length.6
But it has, in the classroom. For the saying that good teachers must be good actors has a meaning beyond the obvious one that acting technique can be useful to the teacher in the classroom. The classroom is the teachers stage. In it, in the short span of a lifetime, the teacher must bring to life whatever values and meanings he/ she has chosen to bepeach; must enact and reenact them, and finally bow down and out without ever having exhausted the possibilities. Yet shouldnt the struggle itself, the acting of ones part, be enough to fill ones heart? Shouldnt one applaud? Shouldnt one imagine the teacher happy?
11. But let us be more concrete and specific. If one equates teaching and art, and if one understands art as a lifelong, impossible struggle to tame the wildness of the world, one may compare teachers with artists and learn what it means to be a teacher from what it means to be an artist, not in the general way I have pursued up to now, but in a more concrete manner. After all, neither teaching nor art exists at all, only teachers and artists, human beings combining in themselves the artists way of revolt with the teachers acting in the classroom.
What do contemporary artists do? In Maxine Greenes words,
They communicate by means of pop images . . . they render what they perceive to be reality tensely applying daubs of color, drawing spare, minimal bars in empty space, letting paint explode in whorls. They create surreal or magic images. . . . Or they present no images at all but only. . . ditches opened up in desert places, sheets thrown over cliffs.62
They seek,newer and more varied ways to put newer and more varied questions to a world from which there is always something more to learn. The range of issues the human mind seeks to ponder grows ever larger with the passing of the years, and the human nostalgia for meaning grows with it; so, equally, grows the disappointment: reality remains forever inscrutable and aloof, though striking in its colors and brilliant in its sonorities.
Movements multiply; styles appear and disappear with great rapidity: yesterdays radicals become todays chic; everything is up for grabs, and a bewildered public longs for the simplicity they think prevailed in decades past, shrinking away in disgust or righteousness from the various -isms and -snesses that populate the contemporary art world.
No teacher can shrink back and claim to be an artist. In fact, like any artist, the teacher is required every day to reinterpret, to make sense of life, to communicate meanings dimly envisaged, intuited, or hoped for. But this the teacher, like the artist, does not achieve by merely replicating what was, by ruminating the past, or by teaching, as the saying goes, basic skills and values. On the contrary, this is achieved by means of radical pedagogies along the lines of the radical sorties of contemporary art.
Again, achieving artistry in teaching is not a matter of adapting the techniques of art to teaching or of using the arts as teaching tools or accessories, as Greene so wonderfully suggests.= It is a matter of devising a radical pedagogy which, like art, should address all aspects of reality, issues, problems, concerns, defeats, and exal- tations, without masking anything.
Henry Giroux has written eloquently about what he calls an emancipatory model of authority based on the kind of society teachers want to live in. His argument runs as follows:
If the concept of authority is to provide a legitimating basis for rethinking
61. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 58. 62. Maxine Greene, Teacher as Stranger; (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1973), 12. 63. Ibid.. 291-98.
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the purpose and meaning of public education and radical pedagogy, it must be rooted in a view of community life in which the moral quality of every day existence is linked to the essence of democracy.
Such a model, he continues, provides the ontological grounding for teachers who are willing to assume the role of transformative intellectual^."^^ The same grounding, I believe, is provided by the model of the teacher as artist when art is understood in Camuss sense elucidated above.
This concept of teaching, as Giroux makes obvious, challenges the dominant view of teachers as technicians or public servants, whose role is primarily to implement rather than conceptualize pedagogical practice.66 The challenged view is the one that reigns supreme in schools of education and which is embedded deep in the minds of school administrators, so-called boards of education, and state legislatures.
Evidence of this is easily obtained by a look at the rise in mandated competency exams (which implies the belief that passing an exam guarantees minimal competence in practice): at the paternalistic bureaucracy of administrators (which implies that teachers, like children, must be told exactly what to do); and at the laws governing teacher strikes (which assume that teachers must always conform, never dissent).
The new view of teaching, Giroux continues, entails that the teacher is in the classroom not only to transmit knowledge and values but equally to empower students to question the social, political, economic, and even pedagogical realities in which they live, in order to be able to alter them and make them more humane. Of such a teacher one ought to be able to state what Emerson said about the true thinker: Beware, he proclaimed, when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at
12. Now, finally, what do I do Monday? To answer this question is to step into the field of method and technique. But it is one of the main contentions of this essay that artistic teaching is not primarily a matter of technique. Just as an artists art cannot be evaluated solely or mainly in terms of technical proficiency and skill, so a teachers teaching cannot be judged exclusively or even primarily in terms of its mastery of method and perfection of execution, a point lost on most nonteachers as it is also lost on most nonartists. Artists, however, have the advantage in that they work in private, giving us an inkling, mostly, of the results of their labors, while teachers work in public, under the glare of floodlights and of public scrutiny, and we hardly ever see the fruits of their cultivations. Thus it is the teacher that is often criticized, and not the taught. Processes are indefinable, and in the absence of product, process is exposed to criticism.
But that is as it should be. For the best things in the world cannot be told, and the second best cannot be understood - precisely because they are told. A teachers answer should be given only in the context of the ontological grounding described above; that is, in terms of artistry. Overstatement is a fault.
Teachers, like artists, should cut out their tongues. They should merely endeavor to give the void its colors.
64. Henry A. Giroux, Authority, Intellectuals, and the Politics of Practical Learning, Teachers
65. Ibid., 29. 66. Ibid. 67. Emerson, Circles, in Emersons Essays (New York: Books, Inc., s.a.), 224.
College Record 88, no. 1 (Fall 1986): 28.