Teaching, Thinking, Thanking: An Ode to the Impossible Gift Part 1

Perhaps it is the end of the quarter or the end of the momentous year 2011, but many of the posts lately at Maphmatically Yours have oscillated between the twin poles of recollection and reformation.  As philosophers since Plato have been quick to point out, the examination of one’s life is a necessary condition for moral and intellectual growth so I don’t feel any need to curtail this tendency.   However, as I read the follow guest post from Bill Hutchison of The Philosophical Animal, I was forced to expand my thoughts beyond the brutality and discovery of the past four months at the University of Chicago and consider all the people who have helped to form me into the person that I am today.  Whilst visiting my alma mater a few weeks ago, I discovered–not surprisingly–that the professors I’d learned so much from in undergrad were still more than capable of speaking to the “new” things I’d learned in grad school–indeed, were still more than capable of holding their own against the Rock Star Professors of U of C.  This first post in Bill’s two-part discussion tracing the commingled threads of education, intellectual formation, and gratitude through the lineage of Continental philosophy and its partner to follow tomorrow are the best sorts of aids for remember the truth that none of us can afford to forget: all of us owe ourselves to a great cloud of others without whom we would be someone else.

…..

 I.

The wrapping paper has been gathered up from the floor. The cat rolls on his back, batting at a stray ribbon. Dishes have been washed, leftovers secreted away for a week’s worth of lunches. Requisite phone calls to family and friends have been made for the year, and we ready ourselves to move on—away from the holiday season, away from the last crumbs of the year, on toward a new year filled with hope, some optimism, and the occasional fear.

As a perennial student, filled with that optimism and fear about the next year at UChicago, the struggle to gain admittance into a PhD program afterward, and “to fight,” as my preceptor put it, “for a decade just to be admitted to your place at the bottom rung of the ladder,” I think of my teachers. In these post-ribbons-and-bows days, I am mindful of the gifts they I have received from them.

I’d like to take up here, and briefly, this idea of teaching as a gift through the lineage of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. It is a disservice to these three teachers to use so little from each, but it is a disservice in good faith.

II.

One repays a teacher poorly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.” —Nietzsche

The most evident reading of Nietzsche’s line is that the natural evolution of the student is to move from being a soldier of the army of small desks to the commander of the lone large desk. But there are a few elements worth examining. The first is the issue of repayment. To our teachers, we owe a debt. This not a debt we owe to all who call themselves teachers, but to our true teachers, our Nietzschean teachers, teachers who drives us upward by a desire to surpass them. We should not wish to surpass those teachers as means of conquering them or exerting our superiority, for such a thing dishonors the teacher, if not teaching. It is to carry their teachings higher by climbing above the teacher; to think further their thoughts, to make them our own and prepare them, in turn for the ongoing inheritance, to take our place in the elevating lineage.

The second element is caught up in two conditionals: that one can repay a teacher, but poorly, and that this is the case if one remains nothing but a pupil. To remain forever a pupil is indeed a requirement for repaying the debt to a teacher, but that is poor repayment, it is not repayment in full, nor is it what I believe must be repayment in excess. The repayment in excess comes from completing the circuit of pupil and teacher and its movement from without to within. The circuit is external as a pupil. I am the pupil; she is the teacher. Knowing and thinking flow from her to me. I am electrified by her knowledge, her questions. I am energized by the awarenesses that are propagated in mind and heart. If I do my duty as a pupil, however, if I honor my teacher, I begin to know and think in ways that may return to her. She may then, perhaps, if I have acted rightly, be energized and electrified by thoughts, as a parent may take a certain joy at the unexpected wisdom of a child. Our teachers remain forever our teachers, and if we have truly learned from them, truly let them be our teachers, they are within us for the rest of our lives, even past the death of the teacher. This circuit is completed externally, and is enriched by the passage of time. But it is at this point that the circuit must move within. We must learn to be a pupil of ourselves, the teacher of ourselves. We must do the slow reading and even slower thinking that reveals and allows us to interpret. It is only then that the possibility of becoming a teacher of others can be made real.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of Bill’s guest post and if you have a professor or two you’d like to acknowledge for their contribution to your intellectual development, we’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

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